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Italy may look to Chilean technology for future earthquake protection

posted 21 May 2012, 11:33 by Mpelembe   [ updated 21 May 2012, 11:34 ]

Fears of building collapse in northern Italy after Sunday's earthquake have forced thousands of people to sleep outside as aftershocks continue to rattle the area. When the dust has settled, authorities may want to take a close look at technology developed in earthquake-prone Chile which minimises the movement of large buildings during powereful temblors.

VALDIVIA, CHILE (TVN) - On February 27, 2010 Chile was struck by a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake which rattled much of the country's south central coast killing more than 500 people and causing $30 billion in damage, wrecking hundreds of thousands of homes and mangling highways and bridges.

The earthquake was the sixth strongest on record dating back to 1900 with tremors felt as far away as Peru and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Chile is situated on one of the world's most active fault lines and, through experience have developed many technologies to minimise the impact of earthquakes. Among those technologies is a building support system of buffers, called earthquake isolators.

The isolators were put to the test recently by researchers at the University of California, San Diego who wanted see how new would work in protecting infrastructure and save lives during strong quakes.

Engineers in San Diego constructed a five-story mock hospital over the country's largest "shake-table," a massive hydraulic platform used to simulate the motion of an earthquake, in order to test base isolators manufactured by Chile's Vulco company.

The building was fitted with the isolators, which act as giant shock absorbers, before submitting the building to a series of earthquake simulations measuring from 6.7 to 8.8 on the Richter scale, the same magnitude as the 2010 quake.

The 80 foot (24 meter) building was complete with a stairwell, elevator shaft, electric and water lines and was even fitted with a complete working intensive care unit.

The idea was to see if the isolators could help a hospital remain functional at a time when the community it serves most needs it.

The 1.4 million-pound (635,000 kilogram) structure swayed and danced atop the rubber isolators as it was observed by some 80 cameras and 500 sensors, but remarkably the damage was minimal and test determined the ICU unit and other operating systems including computers and running water remained functional.

"This building was subjected to the February 27 earthquake, it was a simulation. The interesting thing is that the university trusted in Vulco's earthquake experience and decided to install the earthquake base isolators in this building and put them to the test. They did the physical test a couple of weeks ago and they [simulated] the earthquake and the test went spectacularly well. The building and everything inside it suffered zero damage," Vulco's sales manager, Oscar Bauer, told Reuters in Santiago.

The isolators, built in the company's San Bernardo factory come in a variety of sizes and are made by layering rubber with steel to produce what look like black large plastic wheels.

The system's inventor is Ricardo Abarca.

"The machine that we have here has a maximum capacity for horizontal movement of 100 tonnes and the vertical compression - which is what simulates the weight of the building - is around 800 tonnes. So, with this machine, one can do very realistic tests of what will happen with the isolator when it is placed in the building," he said.

Bauer says the use of Vulco's technology can save lives.

"The difference between a building with isolation and one without is really big. The magnitude is reduced by between one sixth or one eight inside a building with isolators which preserves human life and any goods inside the building," he said.

Chilean buildings fitted with Vulco's technology before the 2010 quake fared well during the crisis and the company has seen demand for their product increase.

Maria Carolina Gonzalez lives in one of the buildings that had isolators installed before the great Chilean quake.

"I spent the [February 27, 2010] earthquake here with my family, we woke up together. It wasn't as big a deal as everyone thinks," Gonzalez said.

The technology has already been installed in buildings throughout Chile including two hospitals in Santiago and a social housing project in Santa Cruz.

With the UCSD simulations backing up the real world success of the base isolators in Chile, it may not be long before more buildings install the base isolators not just in California and Chile, but in earthquake hotspots around the globe.