Fellow in Focus: Nemkumar Banthia, FCAE

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that major Canadian cities face an infrastructure deficit of $123 billion just for restoration, including activities such as repair, rehabilitation, and strengthening of structures. Not only does this produce a massive economic burden, it also presents astounding technical challenges. Solutions need to be cost-effective, long lasting, environmentally friendly, and, as a result, innovative. While this is a daunting task, it comes with a big payoff: the emerging global infrastructure regeneration market is valued at over $1 trillion. Moreover, the inclusion of many infrastructure projects, both in Canada and worldwide, in government plans to cope with the economic downturn create a particular urgency.

One person stepping up to tackle Canada’s infrastructure challenges is Dr. Nemkumar Banthia, a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. Based at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Banthia holds the Canada Research Chair in Infrastructure Rehabilitation and Sustainability. His cutting-edge research is leading to the development of cost effective, safe, sustainable, and durable infrastructure rehabilitation strategies. His efforts run the gamut, from the development of innovative repair materials to the health monitoring of structures.

Traditionally, cement-based products are a key infrastructure repair material. But, as Dr. Banthia explains, “one tonne of cement production releases nearly one tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere”. With global cement consumption expected to almost double from the current 1.6 billion tonnes to about 3 billion tonnes by 2025, this makes for a hefty contribution of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the main driver of climate change. To put this in perspective, Canada’s entire annual release of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases in 2006 was a little more than 0.7 billion tonnes, of which almost 5 million tonnes was due to cement production.

To address this problem, Dr. Banthia and his laboratory are hard at work developing high-performance, eco-friendly, cement-based repair materials. They are reducing the amount of cement in repair materials by replacing it with more environmentally-friendly industrial by-products like fly ash.

The resourceful Dr. Banthia is also turning to recycled materials. “Canada alone produces nearly 20 million tonnes of waste concrete per year from demolition projects, a large portion of which could easily be recycled back into new or repair concrete in the form of recycled aggregates,” says Dr. Banthia. The use of recycled materials in concrete has traditionally posed challenges in maintaining the durability of the final product, but Dr. Banthia has come up with novel recipes for super-strong products that boost both durability and cracking resistance with the use of fibre reinforcement.

He has also incorporated the use of fibre reinforcement into other products, such as a revolutionary structural strengthening polymer, which can be sprayed at high velocity on concrete structures in need of reinforcement.

Not only is Dr. Banthia developing these pioneering repair materials, but he is also working, with great success, on techniques to quickly apply these products to real-life structures. His polymer has been used to reinforce a bridge in British Columbia as well as structures in Osaka, Japan and New Delhi, India.

Considering the generally poor state of Canada’s infrastructure, Dr. Banthia knows that it’s not enough to focus only on repair materials. We need to monitor the health of our infrastructure, a venture that could prevent tragedies such as the September 30, 2006 highway overpass collapse in Laval, Québec, which crushed two cars and killed five people. To accomplish this, Dr. Banthia is making use of the Internet. He is leading the way in the development of smart materials and sensors that can be installed on structures. These technologies can then send valuable data to the engineers via the Web, providing information about the state and performance of the structure. “These sensors have already been installed on a number of demonstration structures in Canada and are being tested for reliability and durability,” reports Dr. Banthia.

Dr. Banthia has received numerous awards and honours, and much recognition for his work. He has also secured his place in the rapidly emerging global infrastructure regeneration market. Hopefully, with the recent economic support for infrastructure in the 2009 Budget, Dr. Banthia and Canadians alike can look forward to seeing his work applied on structures from coast to coast to coast.

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