Concrete check-up: Fae Azhari develops diagnostics for critical infrastructure

Professor Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) holds a sample of the self-sensing concrete she designed. Her work helps monitor the structural health of crucial infrastructure such as bridges, roads and hydroelectric dams. (Credit: Roberta Baker)

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

Canada will spend $125 billion on infrastructure maintenance and expansion in the next 10 years. Professor Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) is helping stretch those dollars farther by keeping our buildings, bridges, roads and reservoirs safe and structurally sound for longer.

Azhari’s research focuses on structural health monitoring. Just as you visit the doctor for periodic check-ups, structures need their health checked too — but instead of blood tests and heart rate measurements, engineers usually perform visual inspections and spot-checks with sensors and instruments.

“The problem with visual inspections is that they’re pretty subjective, and with periodic monitoring, you can miss certain events or failures,” says Azhari. “Now we’re moving toward continuous monitoring by incorporating permanent sensors on important structures to get real-time data.”

Degradation or damage suffered between inspections can have catastrophic consequences. In June 2013, a rail bridge just outside of downtown Calgary partially collapsed as a train was passing over it. The train, carrying flammable and toxic liquids, derailed. Emergency measures were taken to prevent the railcars from falling into the Bow River, which was running high with summer floodwater. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that floodwaters had eroded the soil around the bridge’s foundations, causing the collapse. This loss of sediment from around foundational supports is called scour.

“Believe it or not, this happens very often, especially in North America and some Asian countries,” says Azhari. “Scour is a huge problem.”

For her PhD research at the University of California, Davis, Azhari tackled scour from a new angle: she took commercially available sensors that measure dissolved oxygen, typically used for agriculture or biological applications, and used them for sensing scour. Azhari’s design was to attach a number of oxygen sensors at increasing depths along the buried length of the bridge pier. If the pier is properly buried, the dissolved oxygen levels detected by the sensors should be very low — but as scour erodes the sediments and exposes the sensors to flowing water, the dissolved oxygen levels rise. As scour progresses, more and more sensors become exposed, indicating how badly scour is threatening the bridge’s structural integrity.

She has also worked on concrete sensors, including a design that integrates conductive carbon fibers and nanotubes into concrete, making it a self-sensing material. Measuring the resistance across the material reveals the stresses and strains on it. “This technology is well-proven in the laboratory, but moving it to the field is a big challenge,” says Azhari.

As she builds her research enterprise, Azhari plans to collaborate across disciplines and with key partners who could benefit from her sensors, as well her analysis and insight into the data that comes from them. “Transportation infrastructure, utilities, dams, power plants, wind turbines — basically any engineering system — needs maintenance and monitoring,” she says.

“It’s very important to get these sensors from prototype to implementation, and I want to work on that.”

Two new faculty are cross appointed with CivE and MIE

Two new faculty members join Civil and, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July. Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits. Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems. U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T: Fae Azhari Could you explain the focus of your research? My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making. Why did you choose U of T? Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things. Marianne Touchie Could you explain the focus of your research? My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost. Why did you choose U of T? U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings. I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds.

Two new faculty members join Civil and, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July. Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits. Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems. U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T: Fae Azhari Could you explain the focus of your research? My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making. Why did you choose U of T? Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things. Marianne Touchie Could you explain the focus of your research? My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost. Why did you choose U of T? U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings. I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds. Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July.

Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits.

Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems.

U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T:


Could you explain the focus of your research?

MT: My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost.

FA: My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making.

Why did you choose U of T?

MT: U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom.

FA: Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career.

What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

MT: With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines.

FA: I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers.

As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students?

MT: Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation.

FA: At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering?

MT: Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings.
I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds.

FA: I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things.