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News Release

Earthquake Safe: 30 Years of Innovation at UC San Diego

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The "Vices and Virtues" artwork adorns the top of the original Powell Laboratories building. 

San Diego, Calif., June 13, 2017 -- When you drive across a highway bridge in California, there is a good chance that your safety depends on a piece of technology that has been developed and tested at the University of California San Diego. More specifically, many of the advances making California roads and bridges safer during earthquakes were tested at the Charles Lee Powell Structural Engineering Laboratories here on campus. The facility is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

“This is an incredible and invaluable set of facilities that we’re all proud of,” said Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego—the laboratories’ home. He spoke during a celebration of the labs’ three decades of achievements on Feb. 23. The event included lab tours, a research poster session and remarks by several key figures in the lab’s history.

One of the laboratories’ many landmark contributions is the assessment of key structural elements for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The iconic bridge’s eastern span needed to be replaced after being damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The Powell Labs’ first building is a campus landmark off Warren Mall, especially at night, when the unique neon artwork “Vices and Virtues” by Bruce Nauman flashes around its top stories. Inside, the building is home to a five-story tall high-bay area with a 50 feet-tall strong wall, the first of its kind in the United States, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities for testing large-scale structural systems, capable of simulating very large earthquake forces. Over the past three decades, large-scale bridge and building structural components have been tested there.

“Research facilities, such as the Powell Labs, fuel growth and scientific advances,” said Peter Cowhey, interim Executive Vice Chancellor at UC San Diego. The labs were the “first big monster” in the panoply of research facilities at the Jacobs School, added Powell Labs Director Chia-Ming Uang. Over the years, the laboratories added many more unique facilities, including the world’s largest outdoor shake table.

“The labs are one of the best-known structural testing facilities around the world,” said Frieder Seible, Dean Emeritus of the Jacobs School of Engineering. He is one of the labs’ three founding faculty members, along with structural engineering professor Gil Hegemier, and the late professor Nigel Priestley, who passed away in 2015.

Contribution by the Powell Foundation

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A picture of the labs' inauguration. 

The facility is named after Charles Lee Powell, a self-taught engineer who built a lot of the early infrastructure in Los Angeles. The Powell Foundation contributed approximately $1 million to the construction of the labs in 1984, along with funds from the National Science Foundation and the UC San Diego. Since that time, the Powell Foundation has been a generous key supporter of the Jacobs School of Engineering. Fellowships for engineering graduate students who are critical to the research that takes place at the Jacobs School and the labs are just one example.

The foundation has provided funding for the “education of a large number of engineers that improved our infrastructure and worked toward the public good,” said Joel O. Holiday, the President and CEO of the Charles Lee Powell Foundation. “We are proud to be part of these achievements,” he said.

 A brief history in tests

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A five-story reaction wall allowed researchers to conduct tests on multi-story buildings. 

“The Powell Labs helped bring an entire generation of bridges here in California up to code,” said Tom Ostrom, the State Bridge Engineer at the California Department of Transportation and a Jacobs School alumnus. He is a member of the first class of students to receive bachelor’s degrees in structural engineering at UC San Diego in 1987. He worked as a research assistant at the Powell Labs.

The first test performed at Powell Labs took place in 1987. It involved testing a piece of a bridge superstructure which was removed from state route 41, which goes from San Luis Obispo to Yosemite National Park and brought to campus.  The goal was to find a less expensive way to rehabilitate these superstructures after extensive use.

In the mid-1990s, after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Caltrans launched a major initiative to retrofit bridges throughout the state. A significant portion of the retrofit techniques were evaluated in the Powell Labs at UC San Diego.

In 2001, a team of Jacobs School structural engineers tested key components of the main tower of the new 1,850-ft long eastern span of the Bay Bridge.  This steel tower comprises four separate hollow shafts, interconnected by a series of horizontal links.  These links are used to stiffen the tower so that it will not sway excessively in a major earthquake.  They also serve as ‘structural fuses’ that are designed to dissipate energy in a seismic event so that the tower will not be damaged.

Over the years, the Powell Labs have expanded to include more one-of-a-kind facilities. In 1999, the California Department of Transportation and UC San Diego joined forces to build a very powerful shake table facility with six degrees of freedom within a third building that is part of the Powell Labs. This facility, called the Seismic Response Modification Device Testing Facility, is originally designed to test large-size innovative devices for earthquake protection and is perhaps the busiest testing facility in the Powell Labs. It is also extensively used to support seismic safety projects from around the world. In addition, it was also used to test mechanical equipment and even a composite landing gear brace that was designed for the new Boeing 787 aircraft.

Research data collected in the Powell labs have made major impacts on design codes for bridges and buildings. The data also have helped advance theoretical and computational models that can be used to predict the behavior of these structures. Many structural engineering students who conducted research at the laboratories are now leaders in academia and industry.

Distinguished Service and Contributions Awards

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Here researchers tested a bridge column. 

The 30th anniversary event concluded with the presentation of a Distinguished Service and Contributions Award to Robert E. Englekirk, a structural engineering industry leader in California. Englekirk is the founder of the Englekirk Companies, which has been responsible for the structural design of more than $100 billion worth of construction projects. The companies’ work includes two Los Angeles landmarks: the billion-dollar Getty Center and the Hollywood and Highland entertainment and shopping complex with its centerpiece Kodak Theatre.  Englekirk was also the structural engineer for San Diego’s Emerald Plaza Center and Horton Plaza shopping complex.

In February 2005, Robert and Natalie Englekirk donated $1.5 million to support structural engineering research and graduate student fellowships at UC San Diego. An expansion of the Powell Labs was named after them. The Englekirk Center houses the world’s largest outdoor shake table, which has since been used to test everything from wind turbines to a full-scale six story building equipped with stairs, an elevator and a sprinkler system. The Englekirk Center also is home to world’s first blast simulator, capable of simulating the effect of a wide range of explosions without actually using explosives.

“Any university would be happy to have just one of its facilities on a campus, and UC San Diego has them all in one place,” said Uang, the current Powell Labs Director.

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Powelll Labs was home to tests for the new span of the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering