Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: Engineering aspects

OK, so I am not a civil engineer, nor am I a bridge expert in any way. However, I do have degrees in both mechanics and materials engineering, and I have to say, this morning the news is full of increasing nonsense about the bridge collapse. For example: from the BBC,

Such complete bridge collapses are a very rare occurrence.

If they happen, it is either because the load is too heavy, or the connections between the bridge’s structural elements are too weak, Keith Eaton, chief executive of the UK’s Institution of Structural Engineers, told the BBC.

“The engineers will have to see where the collapse started. Clearly a failure occurred somewhere which imbalanced the whole thing,” he said.

This adds no information whatsoever. All failures occur because the extrinsic loading (stress) exceeds a part’s intrinsic ability to withstand loading (strength). When that happens, something fails or fractures. So yes, “clearly a failure occurred somewhere here.” The news is starting to be full of words that may or may not be used in a technically correct sense: as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune headline reads, “Cracking, vibration possible culprits.”

So I thought a little engineering primer might be in order here, to at least start to clear the confusion in terminology. I’m purposefully keeping my books on the shelf and trying to do this in layman’s terms off the top of my head, so please don’t be surprised that some of this is a bit of a generalization.

Flaws: It is virtually impossible to obtain the theoretical strength of any real, macroscopic-sized engineering component, because the component will have some distribution of intrinsic, tiny flaws. This is critical to remember: no steel beam is perfect to start out with, and part of engineering design is in knowing and understanding this in the first place, and knowing how to safely design around these intrinsic flaws.

Stable and unstable cracks: Small cracks in a structure are not unlike the intrinsic flaws in that engineering design accounts for the fact that there will be small cracks in a structure. Small cracks can be stable, like a crack in your windshield that stays the same for years. Something breaks catastrophically when a small crack under external loading transitions from stable to unstable and rushes across a part with no real warning.

Strength: as noted above, strength is the maximum external stress a part can withstand, and the strength of a component is determined by its “weakest link” or its largest crack or flaw. Macroscopic failure is fundamentally related to the rupture of atomic bonds but it can be difficult to model all length-scales of a process from atomic to km-span bridges in the same mechanical model. When the stress on a part exceeds its strength, macroscopic failure occurs. Failure can thus be considered in two complementary ways: a part’s intrinsic strength can decrease and/or the extrinsic stress on it can increase. This is complicated by the fact that tiny cracks or defects are actually “stress concentrators” in a material: the stress at the edge of a circular hole in a plate is three times greater than in the bulk of the plate. Tiny cracks and flaws can thus grow at subcritical stresses because their local stresses are greater than those on the bulk specimen.

Fatigue cracks: Fatigue failure is the progressive failure of a component that is exposed to cyclic stresses. Any part in service that is loaded repetitively is a candidate for fatigue failure; the accumulation of damage over many years and many cycles of loading can cause a failure at stresses lower than expected. The opposite of fatigue failure is a failure caused by a clear, single obvious event of stress overload (bridge failure when a ship hits a pier, for example). It’s probably true that the cracks in the 35W bridge were “fatigue cracks” since the bridge had been there for 40 years and thus had been subjected to plenty of loading, both mechanical and thermal, over the years. It also appears true that there was no single landmark event that caused the bridge to fail, that small applied loadings (perhaps related to the vibrations of the train passing underneath or the jackhammering of construction work) of a sort that were not out of the ordinary caused the bridge to fall into the Mississippi.

The events of this week, while truly tragic, are not without precedent. Two sets of prior bridge failures keep coming up due to their similarity with this week’s: the Silver Bridge and the Mianus Bridge. In both cases, a steel part failed that was relatively small, but the structures were not designed robustly such that one small failure initiated a chain reaction of subsequent failures and the eventual catastrophic collapse of a large physical structure. When a redundant structure experiences a failure of one of its components, the stress previously withstood by that component is distributed to a number of other components, and even with the additional stress “burden” the remaining components stay below their strength threshold and as a result the structure does not fail catastrophically. For this reason most suspension bridges have bundles of steel cables instead of a single monster cable: one small cable can fail but the bridge does not fall down.

The role of inspections is another topic that does not seem to easily die down. I’m not sure that it’s fair in this case to put the blame on the inspections system. People will, politicians especially. But all of the inspections in the world do not make up for poor initial design. As discussed above, parts in service will fail. Inspections are designed to try and identify the potential for failure by identifying flaws and cracks that might become critical. If we tried to identify every mm-scale sub-critical crack or flaw in every steel structure in America by human inspection, we would need to put a hell of a lot of people on full time employment in this field. The real problem at the root of this failure is the lack of redundancy. Good structures can undergo a failure of one part without causing a catastrophic collapse. The failed part then serves as a much greater and more obvious sign to the outside world that the structure needs work. I said it in the comments, but I’ll say it again here: read the chapter on Redundancy in “Why Buildings Fall Down” by Levy and Salvadori. A quote from them to leave you pondering:

“… the amount of redundancy the designer puts into a structure to avoid total failure in case of local failures … varies with the type of structure. Structural redundancy essentially allows the loads to be carried in more than one way–i.e. through more than one path through the structure–and must be considered a needed characteristic in any large structure or any structure whose failure may cause extensive damage or loss of life.”

So in a way, we DO need more inspections, but not of the sort people keep talking about in the context of this week’s bridge collapse. It is unlikely that an inspection would identify with 100% accuracy the sorts of cracks that brought the 35W bridge down. Instead of focusing on tiny flaws in a steel beam, we need to inspect the structure of bridges and other large components and take them out of service if they are not designed to be sufficiently redundant. That is how we can prevent catastrophic failure and loss of life of the dramatic sort that we saw earlier this week.


12 responses to “Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: Engineering aspects

  1. Per your comment on the previous post and the above, about that “thermal loading” – does this make it more likely that a bridge like this would fail in Minnesota, given the extreme climate, than the same design (even with insufficient redundancies) in somewhere more temperate (i.e. Virgina, Carolinas, etc.)? The weather seems like the wild card here, how on earth do you account for that stress?

    Very helpful, sis. I’m wondering if I need to print this out and hand it out around town…

  2. notfromaroundhere

    Yes, the thermal stresses in a part are directly proportional to the total temperature excursion via the thermal expansion coefficient and stiffness (elastic modulus more precisely). So the total thermal stress in Minnesota where it gets both hotter and colder than in many other places could conceivably contribute to the cyclic fatigue loading–stresses superpose so a thermal stress would be added to an extrinsic mechanical stress.

  3. Ah, yes. In all of the rest of the world, quality systems today are predicated on robust design, redundancy, and process controls, having abandoned the mode of trying to “inspect quality in” about 30 years ago. But in public discourse, it is still all about inspections.

    If Boeing did it that way, every plane would fall out of the sky eventually.

  4. Very helpful for this layperson’s chance to understand what he has not studied. Only had to re-read the odd sentence a time or two (I think you managed to comply with your stated intention to say it in words of one syllable for the plain-spoken). Never liked that bridge, particularly as compared to those around it: the “remarkable Stone-Arch Bridge,” the 3rd Ave and the 10th Ave, the Hennepin Ave suspension bridge, etc. But I sure did not wish to see it come down without the road being closed and employment of some intentional method of demolition with no loss of, or threat to, life. So how do they do on their bridge inspections in the UK, eh?

  5. Not having any expertise whatsoever when it comes to the structural stability of a bridge, the one thing that I haven’t seen mentioned is the fact that the bridge had been experiencing increased stress over the last month plus because traffic was down to only two lanes on what is normally a 4 lane highway at that point. Although many probably sought alternate routes, it is still a main artery and therefore was experiencing a much greater load over a siginificantly smaller space. Add in any construction equipment and work that was being done and I don’t think it’s difficult to see how it could have collapsed, especially with existing cracks that could have been growing during the construction period at a much faster pace than they would have under normal stress.

  6. The Minnesota Bridge Colapse was very tragic. I feel really bad for all of the people who’s loved ones died in the incident. I also pray for the people who are dying in the hospital. I think that we should all pray for those people. It’ll help a lot. Trust me. One time, I prayed for my Great-Grandma because she has heart-failiure, and now she’s recovering very smoothly.

  7. notfromaroundhere

    Hey Karla,

    because of the way we calculate stress on the engineering side, the stress would not actually have been much increased. We define stress as the load (or weight) divided by the area over which the weight acts. If you have an 8 lane bridge with stopped traffic, there is a total weight and a total area to give a certain stress on the bridge deck. If you close half the lanes, you can’t have more than half the cars (approximately!) and then you also have the weight acting over only half the area. Bottom line: same stress. The real difference here could be if the construction itself was adding to the stress even though it was not structural: like if the jackhammering was causing resonance which is sort of a strange self-propagating phenomenon by which you would get more deflection in the beams than you would expect… certainly you’re correct, though, that whatever happened here, it’s existing cracks that got tipped over the edge from sub-critical to critical and that started a chain reaction because of the lack of redundancy I’ve mentioned.

  8. Nicearticle. Bit of a rough go for we non-technical types (lawyer) but thanks, it made much more sense than what I’ve been reading in the Star and Sickle.

  9. I am a structural engineer and I have inspected very similar bridges in the past. My guess is when the dust settles that we’ll find out there was a fatigue failure. Furthermore, the construction activity on the bridge probably had nothing to do with this. I highly doubt the vibrations caused by jack hammers had anything to do with this. I’m not very impressed with the media’s coverage. The real culprit here is the lack of funding to replace and repair the aging infrastructure in this country.

    These bridges were designed before engineers knew about fatigue problems. In addition those bridges had no redundancy. Today we design bridges much differently and these type of situations are very unlikely. Even the older bridges of this nature have a very small chance of this type of failure. Just remember that what you read in the news is typically one sided to make a good story and typically missing very important facts.

  10. That was an excellent summary of a fundamental aspect of large physical structures. It is indeed necessary to have redundancy in such significant constructions. I found it very interesting that many small or unnoticeable problems can cause a problem, and it is especially insightful that these constructions’ components are each only as strong as their weakest points.

    Unfortunately, most mainstream news will not pinpoint the true crux of this type of problem. Public understanding is inevitably low for many subject matters because of a large amount of passivity with respect to many issues (controversial or small). It’s not easy to get changes in effect.

  11. notfromaroundhere

    Hi Todd,
    I’m going to have to disagree with one thing you said: engineers have known about fatigue since the 1800s. There’s a nice timeline on Wikipedia

    The real change that was taking place in the 1960s was the development of high strength steels and their use in structural members including bridges. Their immediate adoption for structural applications is interesting: It’s almost analogous to a drug going on the market with only a limited set of data on its long-term effects on people. Occasionally you get problems like Thalidomide. Engineers didn’t know what the problems would be with the new steels when they started using them, and until something undergoes literally billions of loading cycles, you can’t tell much about its fatigue performance. I think it can be rationally argued that these steels seemed like wonder materials at the time, making structures possible that could not have existed even a few years earlier, and because of that, things perhaps got under-designed a bit. And frankly the evaluation of fatigue performance of high strength steels is an area of ongoing academic research.

  12. I’m a nuclear engineer and believe somebody said the bridge was safe to use and that somebody needs to go to jail.

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