News: Corps of Engineers lab a worldwide leader in materials testing
Story by Tracy Robillard
MARIETTA, Ga. – On the outside, it's a modest brick building in an office park; but on the inside, the technical experts and specialized equipment make this place a global leader in materials testing.
Some call it the "hidden jewel" of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District; but in recent years, it has garnered attention as the southeast's Regional Technical Center of Expertise for materials testing.
Called the Savannah District Environmental and Materials Unit, it's one of few Corps labs in the nation that ranks among the highest in combined technical knowledge and experience.
"We provide superior technical expertise for materials testing to other Corps Districts and other federal agencies throughout the nation and the world," said Michael Wielputz, regional technical specialist with more than 28 years of experience in materials testing.
"Soil, aggregates, asphalt, masonry, mortar, grout—these materials are the building blocks of infrastructure," Wielputz said. "We test these materials to ensure they can support or create a sound structure, such as a dam, a levee, a runway or a building. We go above and beyond to provide the highest-quality results in the industry."
With a current program exceeding $1 million, the lab has processed more than 1,800 samples so far this fiscal year—a workload Wielputz says is "the largest we've ever had." Samples range in size from a small jar to a five-gallon bucket to a three-foot tube.
Most of the soil samples come from military and civil works projects within the Corps' South Atlantic Division boundary, which spans Georgia, Florida, Alabama and the Carolinas. Other samples come from Corps districts outside the region and from projects in other countries.
"A typical day involves working on multiple samples at a time," said Angie Bacon, a civil engineering technician with 15 years of experience in soils testing. "I could be testing a soil sample from a dredge disposal area in North Carolina, and then move on to another sample from a levee in California. We have a wide portfolio."
Savannah District's lab is made up of five staff members—two civil engineers, two chemists, and one engineering technician.
"We are a small shop, but we always have projects going on," Bacon said.
The 7,200-square-foot facility houses offices, equipment and high-tech machinery for testing materials such as soil, concrete, and rock. The tests determine properties such as strength, liquidity, plasticity, permeability, and more.
"The equipment gives us different options to manipulate the tests to find solutions for how to design a project," Wielputz said. "Materials testing is a critical component for any building or infrastructure project, because the classification and properties will drive the design and construction process."
The team has performed materials testing for projects across the globe. Just a few recent projects on the lab's track record include levees in New Orleans and Sacramento; San Francisco River projects in Brazil; and the recently-constructed Portuguese Dam in Puerto Rico.
Customers include other Districts within the Corps of Engineers as well as other agencies with the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Among its top accomplishments, the team was instrumental in developing the International Levee Handbook in coordination with the U.S., the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Germany. This wide-scale project brought together technical experts in materials engineering and testing from around the world and developed a standard set of best practices for levee design and construction.
Additionally, the lab is well-known throughout the Army as a training hub for future Army engineers. The lab often employs Department of the Army interns, who rotate through various offices in the Savannah District and spend time learning the ins-and-outs of the lab.
"We support 'building the bench' of young engineers, geologists and technicians who rotate through our laboratory," Wielputz said. "It's an invaluable experience to train, teach and mentor them. It's hard to find people with a materials background. There's a tremendous amount of industry standards to learn, and you must have all the equipment in place."
Savannah's lab team also supports materials technical workshops at military installations and at other Corps districts throughout the nation and abroad, including Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Honduras and South Korea. Wielputz has facilitated more than 37 formal workshops with more than 742 participants since 2001.
"The workshops, along with many other informal mentoring sessions concerning materials and testing, capitalize on our knowledge and skills to enhance the Corps engineering talent," Wielputz said. "Ultimately, we serve as technical caretakers to improve the Corps' quality engineering and construction skills through the transfer or promotion of our expertise."