National Science Foundation Awards Grant for High-Tech Earthquake Equipment to Montana Tech


The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Montana Tech a $314,012 grant for a project entitled MRI: Acquisition of a Shake Table for Research on Seismic Stability of Rock Masses.

“Most Montanans probably don’t realize that we are living in one of the most seismically active states in the country,” said Professor Mary MacLaughlin, who led the effort to submit the successful proposal in January.  Earthquake engineering is a highly interdisciplinary field with extraordinary societal importance globally.  It draws on and benefits from advances in and at the intersection of geology, geophysics, geotechnical engineering, seismology, and structural engineering.  Montana Tech is well situated to bring together researchers and students from all of these fields to advance knowledge, practice, and learning and research training.  “We have the perfect team for this project right here on campus and we are very proud to have secured funding to bring this powerful research and teaching tool to Montana Tech.” 

The grant funds will be used to purchase and install a high-tech one-ton capacity shake table with computer control and digital data acquisition using a high-speed video camera.  These features will allow a specimen (a system of rock blocks, or an engineered structure) to be subjected to programmed shaking sequences and magnitudes—even ones that match the time histories of previous earthquakes.  Its primary use will be for research on the stability of rock slopes and boulders during seismic (earthquake) events. 

The large number of structures destroyed and the number of people killed and injured during the recent earthquakes in New Zealand, Turkey, China, and elsewhere [the major damage in the terrible earthquake off the coast of Japan was mostly due to the tsunami], along with the huge landslides closer to home this year in Washington and Colorado are convincing evidence that rock falls, rock slides, and structure collapses are serious potential dangers, and not only during earthquakes.  The shake table research can help scientists and engineers gain a better understanding of the response of rock slopes and boulders to earthquake shaking, and the associated mechanisms of failure.  With this information, potentially hazardous areas can be identified and methods developed to mitigate the hazards before disaster strikes.  The shake table can also be used for research related to blasting vibrations, and to study and mitigate damage to structures subjected to earthquakes or other shaking events (high winds or waves, for example) as well.  Its use will be integrated into multiple engineering courses and outreach activities are also being developed.

“The NSF grant for the shake table is hugely important for Montana Tech’s research efforts to understand the strength and failure limits of geomaterials and civil engineering structures,” noted Dr. Beverly Hartline, Vice Chancellor for Research at Montana Tech.  “Moreover, by being able to do shake-table experiments right here on campus, our undergraduates and graduate students will get important experience only rarely available to students at their levels.  Beyond our campus, this capability will benefit students and faculty in these fields throughout Montana and attract additional collaborations and projects.  Congratulations to Mary and her colleagues for winning this grant in a very competitive federal funding climate.”

The interdisciplinary project team consists of Mary M. MacLaughlin, PhD Civil (Geotechnical) Engineering, Goldcorp Professor of Geological Engineering; Deborah Smith,MS Geophysical Engineering, assistant research professor in the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG) Earthquake Studies Office; and Larry N. Smith, PhD Geology, associate professor in the Geological Engineering Department. 

NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI) provides funding for scientific and engineering instruments that strengthen research capability and foster the integration of research and education in research-intensive learning environments.  This is Professor MacLaughlin’s third NSF MRI award.  Her prior grants, one for a significant upgrade to Tech’s sophisticated rock triaxial testing apparatus with accompanying numerical modeling software, and one for state-of-the-art fiber-optic-based strain and temperature sensing devices, totaled nearly $1 million and the equipment is heavily utilized by students and faculty for both coursework and research.  In a statement, Professor MacLaughlin added, “Even though the shake table project is the smallest of my MRI grants, it has the potential to be used by the largest number of students, because there are so many unanswered questions in earthquake engineering that can be addressed by graduate and undergraduate researchers.  I’m really excited about tackling these questions with the shake table and looking forward to the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration within and beyond Montana Tech.”