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Research aims to minimize earthquake devastation

Earthquakes that occurred in Canada in the last 30 days are shown in a graphic produced by Earthquakes Canada. The latest occurrence involves a 3.9 magnitude earthquake reported on Feb. 18, 2021 near Arctic Bay, Nunavut.

Would you be surprised to learn there are more than 1,450 earthquakes across Canada each year?

Although only a small fraction is of large enough magnitude to feel, the data published by Natural Resources Canada includes damaging earthquakes peppered throughout the nation’s history, which will inevitably occur again, according to the federal ministry.

Niel Van Engelen, an assistant professor in the University of Windsor’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading a project that can help Canada mitigate the loss of life and financial ruin caused by these large-scale earthquakes.

The $258,000 project is funded equally by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Research Fund with $46,000 support from the Faculty of Engineering.

Dr. Van Engelen will focus on the advancement of seismic base isolation — a state-of-the-art approach to earthquake engineering that isolates a structure from strong ground motions. This method requires the installation of a specialized layer of flexible devices, known as isolators, usually at the foundation of the structure.

“In effect, the isolation layer behaves similar to the shocks on a car,” says Van Engelen, who specializes in seismic and vibration isolation and structural control.

“The isolation layer accommodates the large ground motion without transferring significant forces to the structure.”

The technology can even be applied in seismic retrofits and is faster and cheaper to install than the traditional method of reinforcing walls, floors and foundations with steel bracing.

major rehabilitation of Canada’s 100-year-old Parliament Centre Block will integrate base isolation and soon, the entire structure will balance on a multi-layered, suspension system.

Although the technology has been widely used around the world since the 2000s, Van Engelen notes Canada significantly lags other countries, such as Japan, China, and the United States, in applying base isolation.

“Less than five of the more than 12,000 base isolated structures in the world are located in Canada.”

Along with co-investigator Rajeev Ruparathna, a civil engineering professor, the UWindsor research team will use a dynamic hydraulic actuator system to simulate earthquake ground motion and the structural response caused by an earthquake.

They will use three-dimensional scanning to render a model of the isolators and bearings to quantify the extent of the damage to address what Van Engelen identifies as “key knowledge gaps in base isolation technology.”

Isolators and their installed bearings should be examined regularly for damage and deterioration, especially after large seismic events. Previous methods include removing the bearings for a physical evaluation. Instead, a 3D scanner will allow UWindsor researchers to complete a non-destructive evaluation.

“Currently, more than half of Canada’s population lives in regions endangered by earthquake hazards,” Van Engelen says. “Recent estimates of potential economic losses due to an earthquake in eastern or western Canada exceed $60 billion.”

The project will train students and provide the Canadian construction industry with the technical expertise necessary to implement the technology.