The Awards for Composites Excellence (ACE) are held each year at the Composites and Advanced Materials Expo (CAMX) to recognize the cutting-edge innovations and innovators shaping the future of composites and advanced materials. What’s it like to win an ACE Award and what motivates industry professionals to develop an award-worthy innovation?
To find out, ACMA spoke with the West Virginia University (WVU) research team that took home the Most Creative Application Award, one of six ACE presented annually at CAMX, for their patented NextGen Multifunctional Composite System. The team included Dr. Hota GangaRao, the Maurice and JoAnn Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at West Virginia University, and doctoral candidate Praveen Majjigapu. The Most Creative Application Award is given to the composites product that utilizes composites in a unique new application or uses the attributes of composites in imaginative, innovative or artistic ways.
About the Award-winning Entry
The patented NextGen system has three major components: filler modules, wedge-like parts made to certain specifications, reinforcing dowels, and composite materials. The system enables buildings and bridges to withstand heavier loads and provides a significant amount of shock absorption as well as moisture and fire resistance. The system significantly increases the strength and durability of structures in hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and other powerful blasts, helping communities prevent devastation. The system is also useful for repairing aging structures and historic landmarks to increase longevity.
Tests have proven that the multifunctional composite system can absorb at least five times more energy than unfortified structures.
“There were three parts to the challenge that lay before us,” said Dr. GangaRao. “First, we had to create a filler block that would work for any kind of infrastructure, that, when applied, would reduce the stress concentration around the joint.
“Second, we had to determine how to reduce the number of grouping of various reinforcements at any given joint to make room for the transferring of forces from one member to another—for example, from a column to a beam to a floor slab. Third, we wanted to come up with a scenario where we could refurbish a system without tearing it down.”
Significant Reinforcement to Shock-prone Structures
The NextGen Multifunctional Composite System delivers dramatic improvements to infrastructures exposed to hurricanes, blast forces, and other systemic shocks. When reinforced with the system, the composite material’s much higher melting point means that buildings and bridges are more well-protected from fire damage. This is critical in housing systems, where the cost of damage is not only high in terms of money, but in the potential loss of human life as well.
Adaptive Process Provides Flexibility in Approach
“Each situation is different. The team uses a high resolution camera to take 3D photos in order to establish the kind of filler block required. We devised a mechanism of either making the filler blocks somewhere else first, or making them in situ using additive manufacturing concepts, and installing the block before it is wrapped with the composite material. Each filler block has a special coating or base to minimize the effects of fire on the structure’s integrity,” said Dr. GangaRao. “Sometimes we use dowels between the filler block material and the substrate to enhance the strength of the joint, depending on whether the structure is wood, steel or concrete. In each case, we have to decide whether to use dowels, how many to use, and what the return is on using them in terms of additional energy absorption gained.”
GangaRao sees the tremendous benefit of NextGen in refurbishing older buildings in areas such as California, where building codes require compulsory retrofitting to limit the damage—and danger—of earthquakes. “This is the only economical and durable alternative to repairing and reinforcing structures without ripping and replacement. An average building costs about $50,000 to refurbish with composite materials, but tearing into the structure would cost hundreds of thousands to do the same work. Using composites minimizes cost and inconvenience and increases longevity and durability. We only have to fill one in four or five joints so that the building can withstand earthquakes.”
Composite Education Still Needed Says Team
GangaRao and Majjigapu feel there is still much to be done to make more engineers aware of composites and their many benefits. “This is an impediment because not many engineers can design for using composites with a high level of confidence,” said GangaRao.
The team’s suggestions for increasing composites awareness includes more education for students, contractors and designers, and end-users. “Engineers must learn how to build composites-based retrofits, and structures retrofitted with composite materials should be monitored to measure the gains and share that information with the industry,” he adds.
Another important recommendation is that composites, in addition to steel and concrete, be allowed as part of the bidding process. “The government could help by providing incentive to using advanced materials. How can we marry composites with steel and concrete?”
Being an Award Winner Has Many Benefits
This is not the first time Dr. GangaRao has won an award at CAMX. In 2017, he was part of a research team that included representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that won the CAMX Combined Strength Award for the development of composite wicket gates that replace standard wooden wickets that save the government considerably on cost while significantly increasing the durability and lowering upkeep of these water-bearing structures. We asked what he sees as the benefits of entering the CAMX Awards.
“Entering the CAMX Awards allows one to gain visibility among vendors who are taking a look at what new innovations they may want to push forward. We won an award for the wicket gates last year, and after that, word of the wicket system got out. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers have asked for 400–500 more of them. But more importantly, we managed to produce a better, longer lasting, more cost-effective product using composites than if we had used conventional materials. It’s not the monetary gain that drives us—it’s the role we play in the betterment of our Nation’s infrastructure, and in saving taxpayers money.”
Award Application Process Proves Thought-provoking
For Majjigapu, the award application itself was interesting. “The award is not based on just your description of the project. It asks about the concept, design, the impact and implications of the product, and how it can be manufactured. It’s not just about the innovation itself, but how it can be applied to meet specific requirements and have practical application.”
Majjigapu also enjoyed attending CAMX, where he met people interested in the NextGen Multifunctional Composite System. “I liked interacting with others at the Exhibit Hall. I got to hear different perspectives and suggestions on how our product could be used, which was useful.”
What’s next for the award-winning team? They’re currently working with Mexico on making new products out of recycled materials, as well as on using in situ additive composites to reduce costs and minimize the issues inherent in refurbishing some of the country’s structures.
Learn more about CAMX and the ACE Award or to apply, visit
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