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  • Dr. Dagher’s history of innovation, leadership and work at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center recognized by White House award

    Dr. Habib Dagher his Bridge in a Back Pack behind him at the University of Maine in 2009. photo by Ramona du Houx

    By Ramona du Houx

    In the spring of 2009 when Dr. Habib Dagher walked on the stage at the University of Maine during a presentation about bridge composite technologies he was casually carrying an oversized backpack. To most everyone’s surprise he opened the backpack and proceeded to pull out a large blue cylinder bag—and announced this was the major component that would form the skeleton of the arch of the award-winning composite bridge system, known as the “Bridge-in-a-Backpack.”

    In addition to the composite arch bridge system, Dr. Dagher’s history of innovation includes being named on 24 patents with 8 more pending.

    Finally, Dr. Dagher, on October 13, 2015, has been properly recognized for being a leader, the prime inventor of the “Bridge-in-a-Backpack,"  an inspiring innovator and mentor as he became a “2015 White House Transportation Champion of Change.”

    The White House Champions of Change Program honors Americans who are empowering and inspiring other members of their communities. At the event, honorees will have the opportunity to highlight their efforts in advancing transportation during a panel discussion. In addition, a blog post and the biography of each honoree will be featured on the White House website.

    “I’m really, really humbled,” said Dr. Dagher, founding Director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “The award really belongs to the entire center, to the entire team.”

    The Bridge-in-a-Backpack’s arches, made of composite materials, are inflated at the site of a bridge and then infused with resin. Once they harden, they are lowered into place and filled with concrete and the foundations are shored up. Then the arches are covered in a corrugated, composite material, dirt and sand fills in gaps, and a composite deck on top of the structure is paved.

    The world’s first “Bridge in a Backpack” can be seen in Pittsfield as the Neal Bridge. That 44-foot structure used 23 arches in its construction and cut down the time of erecting a bridge — which was built by UMaine students, professors, and the Maine Department of Transportation.

    Governor John Baldacci made sure ten percent of Maine’s bridges would be built from the technology developed at the Composite Center in a transportation bond. That enabled the first Bridge in a Backpack to be constructed, and every since then attention and acclaim has been rolling in. With revolutionary examples of a light weight, more durable and flexible bridge technology here in Maine other states continue to see the advantages of using the “Bridge-n-a-Backpack.” The company that manufactures the bridges is owned and operated by Mainers in Orono, near UMaine.

    Dagher has also spurred composite technologies in alternative energy systems, boat building and extra strong buildings.

    “Dr. Habib Dagher is a wonderful and talented ambassador for Maine, and UMaine. His work on the composite program is yielding gains in transportation, energy, and boat building. I am proud of what he did in Maine and how the technologies he has fostered are great examples of what Maine can do for the nation,” said Former Governor John Baldacci.

    Dr. Dagher received his award in Washington D.C. at the White House Champions of Change event as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recognized 11 of the nation’s top transportation innovators for their exemplary leadership in advancing transportation and leading change that benefits our nation’s transportation system.

    The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) nominated Dr. Dagher for the award.

    “From Bridge in a Backpack to the VolturnUS wind-power project, the brilliant innovations he has developed are opening many economic opportunities for the state’s future,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. “I’m so glad the White House is recognizing his vision, leadership, and ingenuity.  Congratulations to him and his team on this well-earned honor.”

    “Dr. Dagher has long been an innovative force in Maine, and we are delighted that his work is being recognized so prominently by the White House,” said Senators Collins and King in a joint statement. “The University of Maine continues to prove that it is a first-class research institution, and Dr. Dagher and his team at the Composites Center are exemplary of that excellence.”

    In 2014, the Composite Arch Bridge system was approved in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) bridge code, the first FRP composite bridge system to be approved in the US bridge design code.

    Dr. Habib Dagher's Bridge in a Back Pack being displayed at the University of Maine in 2009. photo by Ramona du Houx

    The Arch Bridge System, was featured in the cover story of Plastics Engineering in May 2015. The article titled, “Reinforced Plastics Move into Non-Traditional Markets,” was written Peggy Malnati. An excerpt from the article follows:

    “With increasingly unpredictable weather, natural disasters, and civil unrest plaguing many regions, it’s increasingly important to be able to replace damaged or destroyed bridges rapidly. Even in settled areas, aging infrastructure on bridges that are over their limit and beyond their service life means local and regional governments need ways to replace bridges quickly and cost effectively, preferably with materials offering longer use life.

    “A composites-intensive bridge technology developed by University of Maine’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center and commercialized by Advanced Infrastructure Technologies (both in Orono, Maine, USA) is said to provide a better, faster way to replace a wide variety of concrete bridges, freeway underpasses/overpasses, and railroad bridges. The project began with three ambitious goals: replace concrete formwork and rebar, use efficient arched structures, and produce components at the worksite.”

    Dr. Habib Dagher speaking about his Bridge in a Back Pack at the University of Maine in 2009. photo by Ramona du Houx

    “This award honors over a decade of ground breaking research by Habib and the UMaine team and highlights the importance of our continued partnership in advancing the nation’s transportation industry,” said Brit Svoboda, Chairman and CEO of AIT.

    Composite arch bridges have been installed in 18 locations in the US. A few others have been built elsewhere, including one in Trinidad.

     When a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007 Baldacci put together a $40 million bond, from nominal fees, to repair and replace the bridges at risk in Maine. "We’re going to use the latest research and development technologies from the University of Maine in composites to be a part of the solution," said Governor Baldacci at that time. "This should help spur the growing composites industry in Maine while making our bridges safe and secure."

    It did as the bond bill established a bridge composites innovation initiative where the MDOT worked with UM to expand the use of composites technologies in bridge maintenance and capital applications. They used the technology and products to inspect and extend the life of bridges and developed delivery models that expedited the design, rehabilitation and construction of bridges.

    Under Dr. Dagher’s leadership, the UMaine Composites Center grew from an idea proposed to the National Science Foundation in 1996 to a 100,000 ft2 world leading research laboratory with 180 full and part-time employees and students, the largest STEM-based research center at a Maine university.

    “In his 30 years at the University of Maine, Habib has embodied the teaching, research and community engagement efforts at the heart of Maine’s research university,” said University of Maine President Susan J. Hunter. “He is an internationally recognized leader in his field addressing the needs of Maine, and his innovation has led to structural technologies that have improved transportation infrastructure, advanced economic development and saved lives. And in all these efforts, he has engaged hundreds of students — tomorrow’s workforce — and created jobs. This national honor recognizes the achievement of hundreds of UMaine collaborators, and represents the strong partnership UMaine has with businesses and communities throughout the state.”