Paving the way: UH prof's highway device cuts costs, saves time

November 09, 2005

HOUSTON- One University of Houston professor has developed a time-saving, cost-cutting roadway device to help the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) ensure highways meet proper construction standards for concrete thickness.

TxDOT has the responsibility to ensure every thoroughfare meets these standards, requiring construction crews to pour concrete to the designed thickness for highways. The problem lies in the difficulty of how to check this thickness once a road is constructed. Traditionally, checking the thickness of highway segments has been time-consuming and costly, involving the drilling of a core sample every 1,000 feet that took from 30 minutes to an hour, at a cost of about $700 per core, said C. Richard Liu, UH professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering.

Earning a 2005 Most Innovative Research Award from TxDOT, Liu helped alleviate these worries with his ground-penetrating radar (GPR) device that measures the thickness of concrete non-destructively. Offering TxDOT a non-invasive, less expensive way to test the quality of Texas roads, Liu rolls his device down the freeway to read thickness and other key facts, such as moisture level to help determine when a section of highway is ready to sustain traffic. This allows TxDOT to forgo the drilling process without as much as a scratch in the road surface. "There are many GPRs available, but our device can directly measure the thickness automatically without human interference," Liu said. "TxDOT plans to use the new device in everyday operations and only drill core samples when there are discrepancies. The equipment costs less than $5,000 to manufacture and the cost of operating the GPR is very minimal, while providing many times more data than drilling."

The entire device is made from original technology developed at the Cullen College of Engineering, from beginning to end, including hardware, software, high-frequency antennae and design. Now that the GPR has been successfully developed and tested, the next stage will require actually putting the new devices into service all across Texas. The first GPR venture, a pilot project, was funded at about $120,000, and the next phase will be to build more units for implementation, funded with about $500,000.

"Every dollar spent on ensuring the safety of highways is well spent, because they are such huge investments," Liu said. "Every lane mile of interstate highway is a $6 million project, so monitoring the thickness used by contractors is very important."

Liu received his B.S., M.S. and Ph. D. degrees in electrical engineering from Jiaotong University, Xian, China, joining the Department of Electrical Engineering at UH in 1988 as a post-doctoral research associate and then joining the faculty in 1992. Liu, the director of the UH Subsurface Sensing Lab and the UH Well Logging Lab, has authored 38 technical papers in refereed journals, 35 papers in conferences and two books. He is a member of TxDOT's Research Management Committee, as well as an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), Environmental and Engineering Geophysics Society (EEGS) and Society of Professional Well Logging Analysts (SPWLA).
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.

About the Cullen College of Engineering
UH Cullen College of Engineering has produced five U.S. astronauts, ten members of the National Academy of Engineering, and degree programs that have ranked in the top ten nationally. With more than 2,600 students, the college offers accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees in biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, electrical and computer, industrial, and mechanical engineering. It also offers specialized programs in aerospace, materials, petroleum engineering and telecommunications.

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