CONTACT: GARY GALLUZZO
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: April 18, 2000
UI researcher builds bridge to Earth Day
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa researcher Ibrahim Al-Khattat won't
commemorate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 by rallying on the
Mall in Washington, D.C. Instead, he will spend it at the Oakdale Research
Campus, planning for a time later this year when he enlists the help of school
children and their parents and teachers in a project that will use "waste"
wood to build an environmentally and structurally sound bridge.
Al-Khattat, founder and president of the non-profit American Institute of
Sustainable Science and Technology, Inc. based at the UI's Technology Innovation
Center, Oakdale Research Campus, says it's a project that may pay long-term
dividends in community education.
"Just about everything used in the project is commercially worthless
by present-day standards," says Al-Khattat, who is also an adjunct associate
professor of civil and environmental engineering in the UI College of Engineering.
"I hope to get the community behind the project and make people aware
of science and environmental conservation as tools of development and wealth
generation. This technology opens up a vast new field of 'green' engineering
research and applications. It amounts to a profitable formula for saving the
The project itself is a 62-foot-long bridge to be built on the grounds of
Kirkwood Elementary School where it will span a creek and provide students
access to the school's 35-year-old, one-acre environmental campus consisting
of 100 species of trees and various native flowers and grasses. He notes that
the City of Coralville (which eventually will own the completed bridge) is
providing logistical support, while the University of Northern Iowa's department
of industrial technology is to manufacture the essential metal connectors.
Labor will consist of students from Kirkwood Elementary, Northwest Junior
High and West High schools and their parents, teachers and other interested
volunteers. Each student will be given an opportunity to install a bridge
component. The design, provided by Al-Khattat's Institute, involves a latticework
of logs cut from wild, small-diameter black locust trees, fitted into metal
connectors, and tensioned and braced together with steel cable. The deck of
the bridge will consist of discarded shipping pallets that would otherwise
end up in landfills.
"Black locusts grow along highways as a weed tree," Al-Khattat
says. "It's available almost for free; all we have to do is cut it. Yet
it does not decay and has twice the compressive strength of concrete."
When asked to explain, he says that the ring structure, when left intact in
the form of a round log, gives the wood tremendous strength and resiliency,
a quality lacking in commercial lumber derived from mature logs sliced into
One obstacle to beginning the project, according to Kirkwood Elementary
Principal John Saehler, is that the ends of four-inch diameter black locust
logs need to be trimmed so that they can fit into the metal connectors. Al-Khattat
acknowledges the delay, adding that he is arranging to purchase a device,
similar to a large pencil sharpener, able to trim each log in seconds.
In the meantime, both the students and Al-Khattat have been moving ahead.
Saehler says that some of his Kirkwood Elementary students assembled 10-foot-wide
geodesic domes from 2-foot-long sticks and connectors some months ago. Similarly,
junior high students participated in the assembly after processing the logs
themselves. "It's a nice project for the kids to learn," he says.
And, on a residential lot that the Institute owns in Coralville, Al-Khattat
has built a 20-foot-wide dome and a 35-foot-long bridge as demonstration models.
The demonstration bridge, which closely resembles the bridge planned for Kirkwood
Elementary, proved its durability by withstanding sustained hurricane-force
winds without damage during the severe storm that hit eastern Iowa on June
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of deteriorating
bridges across Iowa that need to be replaced," says Al-Khattat, a native
of Iraq who received his doctorate from Stanford University. He has earned
European Union and British funding, a patent and a top invention award from
the British Design Council for the new technology, formally known as LPSA
(Light Post-tensioned Segmented Arch) technology. Supported by a $120,000
research grant to the Institute from the Iowa Highway Research Board and the
Iowa Department of Transportation, an alliance composed of the Institute,
Buchanan County and the University of Northern Iowa is planning to design,
construct and test a heavy duty LPSA suspension bridge within Buchanan County.
"I'm tweaking engineering and science through a simple requisite: environmental
sustainability," Al-Khattat says. His main message: "Don't take
from the Earth more than you put in."