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Fire and Steel


The image of New York’s World Trade Center burning in September 2001 is a scene that will be etched in countless people’s minds for the rest of their lives. Dr. Souhail Elhouar also recalls the scene; however, his thoughts have been channeled into fire research he hopes may one day help save lives.

A Bradley University associate professor of civil engineering whose area of expertise is analysis and design of steel structures, Elhouar says, "Based on all of the investigations, the fire is what brought those buildings down. They were still intact after the airplanes’ impact, but the heat of the fires brought them down."

Elhouar says, "Fire makes steel soft. It makes it lose stiffness quickly so it becomes a very soft material that deforms extensively. You’ll see it buckle and deform in a fire."

An expert in computer simulation, computer programming, and developing software that can be used to solve civil engineering problems, especially in the structural engineering area, Elhouar partnered with civil engineering graduate student Brandon Diffenderfer to conduct research in 2006 after receiving a Graduate Research Assistantship Program Award. Their research simulates the behavior of steel structures under the effect of fire using a 2-D computer-based frame model in Excel. After this initial research was completed, Elhouar received a Caterpillar Fellowship to fund the 3-D fire simulation model’s development.

Dr. Souhail Elhouar

Dr. Souhail Elhouar uses a part of a truss from the razed Robertson Memorial Field House to show his interest in structural steel research.

"One of the things that struck me was that there was no real software that can be used now by design engineers to simulate the behavior of structures when they are subjected to fire," Elhouar states. "We have to wait until there is a fire, see how the structure behaves, and try to explain it. I asked, could we develop software that we can use as a tool after we design a building to simulate its likely behavior under some fire conditions?"

Research like his has not been done because "It’s a very complex problem and still has lots of unknowns, especially if you have an act that is premeditated to do damage and is not an act of nature. That is really why it’s research at its infancy."

The complexity added momentum to Elhouar’s desire to conduct the research. "We said, ‘well it’s about time to start.’ We may not have the exact answers right away, but even if we make one step toward it, we’ll make a contribution."

Through his simulation, Elhouar hopes improvements and corrections can be made before structures are built. "After it’s designed, they can run it through the simulator and check what kind of hazards would be associated with a fire set here or there; how it might affect the structure and everything else. That knowledge can improve the design and safety before it is built, instead of investigating what had happened after the fact and trying to figure it out."

His research will also help designers know if a fire in any location will take a structure down and how long it will take before it falls. "By knowing that information, we can consider changes we can make to the structure that will make it stand longer so the fire department can have enough time to evacuate everybody."

Discussing his collaboration with Diffenderfer, Elhouar states research can be more valuable when the professor and student work together. A student comes at it with a new approach, whereas a teacher’s knowledge can sometimes be restrictive. "Students have more freedom in the way they think. Collaboration is a good way for students to learn and faculty to improve. The beautiful thing about research is you venture into places where even the professor is learning. You learn a lot and the student learns a lot. It is also one of the few opportunities for students to see their professors in problem-solving action."

Elhouar says that Diffenderfer "was very responsive and attacked a difficult problem. He addressed problems that were not specific to civil engineering, but he was willing to learn." After completing his 3-D model, Elhouar hopes to prepare a funding proposal, hire additional students, and verify the models at a place prepped for fire research.

"If you think of the possibilities, it is just mindboggling." The constant introduction of new construction materials and methods will keep the research continuous.

His goal for the future is that when some structures are designed they will be required to use software like he is developing, "especially structures that are very public in nature where the fire hazard can be extremely costly in life."