Kinetica: engineering safer buildings in Toronto, China and worldwide

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

U of T Engineering startup Kinetica is reaching new heights at home and abroad. The company, which designs technology that makes buildings more resistant to earthquakes and high winds, just announced that its products will be incorporated into the YC Condos at the corner of Yonge and College in Toronto.

Co-founded by alumnus Michael Montgomery (CivE PhD 1T1) and Professor Constantin Christopoulos (CivE), Kinetica also signed a deal earlier this month to distribute its products in China, as part of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s trade mission to that region.

Alumnus Michael Montgomery (pictured) and Professor Constantin Christopoulos are behind Kinetica, a startup making buildings earthquake resistant. (Photo: Katherine Carney)

The startup uses a technology called viscoelastic dampers, which are  large sheets of a rubber-like material — known as a viscoelastic polymer — sandwiched between steel plates. When incorporated into tall buildings, these dampers absorb vibrational energy and transform it into heat, reducing forces in adjacent components. Essentially, they dissipate and divert the energy that’s created within a building’s structure during high winds or earthquakes.

“Viscoelastic dampers were actually the first damping systems used in tall buildings like the World Trade Centre in New York City, which was built in 1969,” says Montgomery. “They used about 10,000 in each building.” Their main purpose was to reduce the swaying caused when such buildings endure high winds. Buildings higher than 50 stories can sway as much as several feet on either side, which can make penthouse-dwellers motion sick.”

Recently, it has become increasingly economical and efficient to make tall buildings out of concrete rather than steel. Unfortunately, the design of these new concrete buildings makes it harder to incorporate distributed dampers into the structure.

In steel buildings, dampers could be used either in a brace (diagonal) or wall (vertical) configurations within the steel skeleton. By contrast, concrete buildings contain thick, long walls that stretch from the bottom all the way to the top; there is no available space within the skeleton to integrate the dampers.

Instead, builders of concrete structures usually rely on huge masses at the top, generally very large steel blocks or very large tanks of water, to provide damping. When the building shifts one way in the wind, these giant masses shift the other, providing a counterweight that reduces the motion. Such masses take up lots of space; they also have to be very carefully designed and instrumented to match the properties of the specific building they are used in and they don’t provide protection against earthquakes.

Montgomery and Christopoulos’ key insight was to realize …

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