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Building blocks

September 9, 2009
With many cement bridges and roads in Canada in
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With many cement bridges and roads in Canada in dire need of repair, a new engineering lab (INSET) at Université de Sherbrooke is looking to improve the materials that go into our national infrastructure system.
Courtesy of Université de Sherbrooke

With the cost of repairing the concrete infrastructure of Quebec’s transportation network estimated at about $125 billion, Université de Sherbrooke is poised to be part of a solution. Its recently opened civil engineering laboratory will use the latest technology to test new materials for the construction of buildings, roads, bridges, tunnels and hydro dams.

And while the research emerging from the lab will undoubtedly create thousands of new construction jobs across the country, the building of the lab itself helped generate employment in the Sherbrooke region.

Inaugurated in June 2009, the $17 million Integrated Research Laboratory on Materials Valorization and Innovative and Durable Structures has seven controlled-environment rooms. Here, materials such as concrete — the world’s most widely used building product — are subjected to different climatic conditions and undergo mechanical and chemical testing. The two-storey lab is large enough to accommodate a pilot plant for concrete, complete with a mixer.

“Researchers used technological innovation and experimental products in the construction of this building,” says lab director Kamal Khayat. “For us, the construction itself is a testing ground. It’s part of the research.”

In keeping with Université de Sherbrooke’s policy to encourage the hiring of local entrepreneurs, engineers and tradespeople, says Khayat, work on the engineering laboratory was carried out almost exclusively by residents of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. During the design and construction phases, engineering and architectural firms were hired, along with a bevy of construction workers, including electricians and heating and ventilation experts. The university hired a project manager and a construction supervisor, and private quality-control labs also provided services. The laboratory itself has employed two full-time engineers over four years. A lab coordinator and two technicians, as well as an additional 20 graduate and post-doctoral students will eventually be brought on.

One–of-a-kind in Canada, the lab has already attracted the attention of several key external partners, including Hydro-Québec and the City of Montréal, which will work with a team from the civil engineering department. The university is also banking on the lab’s unique specialized equipment and research capabilities to help recruit researchers and lay the centre’s foundation as a leader in North America — one building block at a time.