Graduate AEWC students stand next to a composite prototype for a wind mill they built.

Part of AEWC -UMaine’s composite center -may become a transportation center of excellence for the federal government

By Ramona du Houx

October 19, 2009

In August U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood toured the UMaine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center (AEWC), accepting an invitation from U.S. Representative Mike Michaud.

LaHood went back to Washington, DC impressed.

“The secretary asked me, ‘Do you have a booklet that shows everything I saw today?’ I answered, ‘sure.’ He said, ‘Could you give me about eight of these? I would like to distribute them to the President’s Green Cabinet.’ That’s huge,” said an excited Habib Dagher, AEWC’s director.

LaHood went from display to display at the AEWC center, listening to explanations about the how the composite technologies developed at the center are strengthening bridges, boats, buildings, and windmill structures. The resins make the structures more durable, flexible, lighter, less corrosive, and stronger.

“Composite technology is a material technology that can be applied to a lot of applications. Here we are using them in bridges, retaining walls, windmill structures, and boats. Secretary LaHood took it all in. He was impressed, and invited me to give a presentation to the Green Cabinet during their monthly meeting in DC. That could be major for the state. Without Congressman Michaud’s help bringing the secretary here, none of this would be possible.”

Congressman Michaud pledged last spring that he would bring the secretary here.

“Secretary LaHood saw the potential here. He’s the first high-ranking federal official to see what’s happing here but he won’t be the last. I’m going to get the president or vice president to come as well. I’m not sure when, but it’s major for them to see what this center is doing, for the nation,” said Michaud. “I’m so very proud to have the opportunity to promote these new technologies which spur economic development.”


UMaine’s AEWC center has expanded product lines for 43 companies, helped start 12 businesses, and boasts nearly 300 product developments and product testing in the past five years.


LaHood praised the work going on at the composite center.

“There is definitely a role for our government in what is going on here at this innovative incubator, where ideas really count and where the research is very important, and you are all on the cutting edge of new developments in transportation and in energy,” LaHood said after the tour with Congressman Michaud, Dr. Dagher, Governor Baldacci, and officials.

More than 100 UMaine faculty, students, staff, and businesspeople showed up for LaHood’s visit, understanding that his approval and possible promotion of their technologies could mean tremendous growth opportunities for the state.

“He was impressed with the depth and breath of what’s going on here, with all the different kinds of composite research. He saw building construction that protects our troops, windmill construction, bridges that improve our transportation infrastructure, and how our boatbuilding industry is benefiting from composites. There was so much, he requested the center’s book to show the President’s Green Energy Cabinet. The fact that AEWC helps with business development also intrigued,” said the governor.

LaHood said he intends to work with Maine’s Congressional Delegation to make part of AEWC a transportation center of excellence, which could be used nationally.

“That would be a tremendous boost for Maine businesses and economic development,” said Baldacci. 

Martin Grimes of Harbor Technologies, an AEWC spin-off composites company, said, “If they can be successful and make this an official test research center for the federal transportation industry, it will be absolutely huge for Maine.”

Harbor Technologies started working with AEWC on composite pilings; now they are also building composite-reinforced bridges. “We have been growing from this, and it will accelerate into unknown proportions,” said Grimes.

Because the bridge technologies are revolutionary new techniques, standards for the federal government have yet to be written. These standards are set by the nonprofit group made up of transportation officials from every state, called the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Unfortunately, until these standards are official, the federal government can’t authorize projects using these technologies.

After talking at length with LaHood, Brit Svoboda, the CEO and managing partner of the center’s spin-off company, Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, LLC (AIT), is hoping LaHood will help expedite the AASHTO certification process.

“It’s going to help us a lot for someone of his level to be able to go to AASHTO with what he has seen here,” said Svoboda. “Just mentioning the fact that the secretary flew to Maine to see our bridge-in-a-backpack means a lot to people in the industry. AASHTO will give us a stamp of approval.”

AIT plans to invest approximately $20 million into continuing development and commercialization of the technology.

“Obviously this a very innovative approach,” said LaHood after watching a video about the center’s bridge-in-a-backpack technology. “Once the center gets that kind of certification or signoff, we’ll obviously look at it.”

The bridge-in-a-backpack technology made headlines last spring, as the results of the first bridge were unveiled to the press. Essentially components of the bridge can be put into a duffle bag and carried to the construction sight. Inside the backpack are carbon-fiber tubes that when inflated turn into arches. Once infused with composite resins, they are moved into place, filled with concrete, and embedded on a fiber-reinforced foundation. The bridges are harder than steel and more resistant to corrosion. The process is faster and costs less than steel bridges do, being transported to job sites. The life expectancy of the bridges is 75 to 100 years, as opposed to 30 to 35 years for most concrete, wood, and steel bridges.

“The demand has been unbelievable after the press coverage last spring. We got calls from states and counties around the world, wanting to use this composite arch system,” said Dan Bannon, a former graduate student at UMaine, who landed a job at AIT after graduation. “Now we are looking to hire new engineers soon. We’re creating jobs for people in this area.”

AEWC researchers have estimated their bridge’s carbon footprint to be about one-third less than that of a standard concrete bridge and one-fourth less than a standard steel bridge.

Governor John Baldacci’s Composite Bridge Initiative calls for composite materials to be used in ten percent of Maine Department of Transportation bridge construction.

“The composite bridge technologies will clearly be commercialized nationally. From a DOT standpoint, it’s important to have options apart from the traditional steel and concrete. We built the first bridge in a backpack, the Neal Bridge, because of the governor’s legislation. We’re very pleased with it,” said Maine DOT Commissioner David Cole.

Once a bridge is built, it becomes accepted with more ease in the industry.

Harbor Technologies bridge technology involves horizontal girders made of composite material. The company has been producing pilings made from composites since 2006. Dr. Dagher introduce bridge architect/designer John Hillerman to Harbor Technologies, and now they are building the girders for bridges together, as well.

The Maine DOT will construct a bridge with Harbor Technologies in Boothby. Six DOT bridges, in Hampden, Falmouth, Auburn, Whitefield, Westbrook, and North Berwick, are scheduled to be rebuilt by 2011 using the bridge-in-a-backpack technology.