Pankow family gift brings state-of-the art materials lab to Purdue

Author: William Meiners
In a land with aging infrastructure, the ability to determine what causes concrete to crack becomes big business. It’s part of the day-to-day business of Jason Weiss.

A professor of civil engineering and director of Pankow Lab, Weiss has worked with companies to develop new types of concrete that are more resistant to cracking.

Now, thanks to the generosity of the Pankow family, these studies will take place in a unique, world-class
laboratory. The Pankow Materials Lab will allow for multiscale evaluation and modeling of materials.

For Weiss, the new lab is about connecting the large scale with the small scale. “Purdue has historically had real great strengths in the mechanical response of large structures and microstructure/nanostructure of materials,” Weiss says.

With space big enough to cast and move large slabs of concrete in carefully controlled environments, researchers and students will develop a better focus on durability. Some of the fundamental questions remain the same. “Can we make reinforced concrete where the steel is less likely to corrode? Can we make concrete that is less likely to crack?” Weiss asks.

“A lot of what we do is focused around cracks,” Weiss says. “We develop computer codes to predict when cracks form. We look for how cracks form. We listen for them, take X-rays of them, and use ‘glow-in-the-dark dyes’ to take images of them. All of this in an effort to quantify their influence on service life and to develop processes to prevent their formation.”

A large environmental chamber at the heart of this lab will allow for concrete, asphalt, metal, and polymer testing in extreme environments. From minus 20 degrees C to plus 60 degrees C, the slabs of concrete can be exposed to different environments. “We have the ability to simulate any environment we want,” Weiss says, “from Alaska in the winter to Dubai in the summer. We can also control humidity and wind speed.” This has great advantages since unlike many items that are manufactured in a carefully controlled factory, civil engineering facilities are built on site, year-round, under some of the harshest conditions. The reactions and potential for manufacturing defects is strongly influenced by casting and curing conditions.

New binders also will be studied in this lab. Jan Olek, professor of civil engineering and director of the Superpave Center, is working on the development of ternary blends to reduce the amount of cement in concrete through the addition of fly ash, slag, or silica fume. When cement is produced, it creates carbon dioxide. To reduce carbon dioxide, alternative, more sustainable cements need to be created. These facilities allow researchers to examine both the sensitivity of these materials to placement temperature and also the role of environment on their long-term durability.

John Haddock, associate professor of civil engineering and director of the Local Technical Assistance Program, is working on the development of advanced ‘greener’ binders for asphalt pavement construction. These new binders may serve as a replacement to the petroleum-based binders currently being used.

“We cannot provide enough thanks for the opportunities that this lab provides,” Weiss says. “This gift enables Purdue to tackle the renewal of the aging infrastructure by testing and simulating infrastructure material performance over a wide range of length scales with real-life environmental boundary conditions.”

Charles Pankow (BSCE ’47) received an honorary doctorate from Purdue in 1983. In 2006, he received (posthumously) the national Chi Epsilon’s organization’s highest individual honor. He founded his own construction company, Charles Pankow Inc., in the garage of his Altadena, California, home in 1963. The company builds commercial office buildings, multifamily housing, mixed-use developments, hotels, hospitals and parking structures. The Pankow family has been longtime supporters of programs, professorships, and facilities in the School of Civil Engineering.