ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) – With a sudden shudder, the ground collapsed and the pipe pushed upward, buckling into a humped shape as Cornell University scientists produced the first simulated earthquake Monday at their new $2.1 million research facility.

Scientists say the earthquake research center will help them test how well the lifelines of modern society – water, electric power, natural gas, fuel and telecommunications cables – can withstand the massive forces exerted by the shifting earth.

“During earthquakes, ground deformation can cause critically important pipelines to buckle or collapse like an accordion,” said Harry Stewart, director of Cornell’s Large Displacement Facility for Lifeline Systems.

Stewart said the research could help scientists improve water and gas distribution systems.

Cornell is one of three upstate New York universities participating in the National Science Foundation’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, a consortium of 15 high-tech labs in 10 states.

The network links the 15 laboratories – including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the State University of New York at Buffalo – through the Internet, letting researchers share data in real time as experiments are taking place.

Similar demonstrations also took place Monday at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Oregon State University and the University of California-San Diego.

“NEES will enable engineers to push the boundaries of design to create structures that will remain safe when an earthquake surfaces,” Jesus de la Garza, program director of the National Science Foundation’s Information Technology and Infrastructure Systems, said as he watched the Cornell demonstration.

More than 75 million Americans in 39 states live in towns and cities at risk for earthquake devastation, de la Garza said.

At Cornell, scientists Monday simulated an earthquake to expose a 30-foot section of six-inch polyethylene piping, typical of the kind used in natural gas transmission, Stewart said.

The pipe was buried in a huge, custom-built trough containing 121/2 tons of sand. The lab is equipped with additional bins holding up to 100 tons of sand. Scientists also can alter the density and moisture content of the sand.

Powerful hydraulic presses called actuators, which can generate a compressive force of more than 500,000 pounds, applied 25,000 pounds of pressure to push the ends of the pipe segment, causing it to buckle upward several feet.

The actuators exert their force by pushing the pipes against a “reaction wall” – a 20-foot-high stack of 10-ton concrete blocks anchored 30-feet into the ground. The blocks can be rearranged to allow for testing of aboveground structures, such as bridge and building components, Stewart said.

Combined, the system can produce shearing forces that would exceed even the strongest recorded earthquake.

“It’s not always the magnitude that is most important,” Stewart said. “It’s the degree of displacement. Even a small quake can cause severe displacement.”

During Monday’s demonstration, the pipe buckled more quickly than expected, and off center.

“That’s why we need to do this research,” Stewart said.

Beyond the $2.1 million grant award, the National Science Foundation will cover operations, maintenance and personnel costs at the Cornell lab through 2014.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.