ORONO – Drivers in the Pittsfield area use the Neal Bridge to get from one point to another on routes 100 and 11.

What drivers may not realize, however, is that the very structure on which they’re driving may be a bridge to something much larger.

The University of Maine-based Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center announced Friday that a group of investors sees big things in the relatively small Neal Bridge, which is the first in the nation to use an innovative technology developed on the Orono campus.

The investors, who include a Bangor native and UMaine graduate, have launched a spin-off company called Advanced Infrastructure Technologies LLC, or AIT, to invest approximately $20 million into continuing development and commercialization of what they have dubbed the center’s groundbreaking “bridge-in-a-backpack” technology.

Officials estimated the new endeavor could create about 100 new jobs and lead to at least six new bridges in Maine over the next several years.

“This is a milestone because of how exciting this technology is,” Composite Center Director Habib Dagher said. “It has the potential to change everything in terms of bridge construction. It can change the way bridges are built in the future.”

The “bridge-in-a-backpack” technology – so-called because of its light weight and the portability of its components – uses collapsible carbon fiber tubes that are inflated, shaped into arches and infused with resin before being moved into place. The tubes are then filled with concrete, producing arches that are harder than steel yet resistant to corrosion.

Finally, the arches – 23 of them in the case of the Neal Bridge – are overlaid with a fiber-reinforced decking and buried under several feet of dirt and sand. The result, according to engineers, is a normal-looking bridge that goes up faster, costs the same or less than a traditional span but should last longer.

Friday’s ceremony was also a day to celebrate the Neal Bridge itself, as Gov. John Baldacci, Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Susan Collins participated in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the Composite Center facility on the UMaine campus.

The center also announced that Brunswick-based Harbor Technologies, a spin-off company of the center, will add 20 to 30 jobs in the next few months for further development of its bridge girders made of composite materials.

It’s a different type of technology from the so-called “bridge-in-a-backpack,” but the advantages are similar, according to the center.

The announcements came three days after President Obama signed the federal economic stimulus package into law. The package includes $111 billion for infrastructure and science.

“The timing’s very favorable for us to begin the introduction and commercialization of this methodology,” said Bangor native Brit Svoboda, one of the investors in AIT.

The wood composite center, which began as a small pilot study in 1991, is now a 48,000-square-foot testing and production facility with more than 140 full- and part-time employees. The center has averaged about $6 million in grant awards in the past few years, with 97 percent of its funding coming from outside Maine.

Maine Department of Transportation officials have put a $6 million “place holder” in the agency’s 2010-11 construction budget for up to six additional composite bridges using the inflatable arches. Additionally, the department is working with Harbor Technologies on designs for a 500-foot-long bridge in Boothbay using the composite girder technology.

The MDOT’s Gary Williams said Friday that the department is still exploring the best sites for the six or so composite bridges in cooperation with Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center staff. But Williams said he expects that future projects would be larger than the 45-foot Neal Bridge.

“We are willing to go bigger, and the university has certainly assured us that we can go bigger,” Williams said.

He described the composite arched bridge in Pittsfield, which cost $581,000, as “cost-competitive” with a traditional steel and concrete bridge.

Transportation officials in Massachusetts, New Jersey and several other states have already been in contact with the Maine DOT, Dagher’s staff and Harbor Technologies about the composite bridges. Williams described Massachusetts highway officials as “very receptive” to the new technology.

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