Harnessing The Power of the International Language of Mathematics in Material Science with Dr. Shafique Ahmed

Written by: Nikki Alvin-Smith

 Dr. Ahmed is noted as a scholar in the world of material science with several published papers to his credit, most with his name as lead author. While Dr. Ahmed is part of the EChem Consultants LLC team and works fulltime both inside and outside the office on a variety of projects for the company, he holds academia close to his heart.

 It is clear from speaking to Dr. Ahmed that he has an altruistic nature, and is keen to make the world a better and safer place, and to share the knowledge of how to achieve that with others. A fact heralded by his earliest of projects as a qualified engineer in his birth country of Bangladesh through to his ongoing research and development initiatives. 

 Ahmed’s most recent collaborative published paper is the 2021, “ Ultrasonic coda wave monitoring of concrete structures: First experiences with large-scale experiments and real structures,” was authored by E. Niederleithinger, X. Wang, N. Epple, T. Schumacher, S. Ahmed, P. Klikowicz and has been published in the book “Bridge Maintenance, Safety, Management, Life Cycle Sustainability and Innovations.”

 Echem Consultants LLC originally deployed this structure health monitoring system in the earliest reinforced concrete stadium in the United States.

Harvard Stadium Dedication Plaque -1903
The unassuming math enthusiast moved onto the sub-arctic environment of Anchorage, Alaska, where he anchored a reconnaissance team of like-minded enterprising scientists to review the effects of the 2018 Cook’s Inlet earthquake on the integrity of the concrete components of several reinforced concrete structures in the city.  This study included a close look at the Ted Stevens International Airport which had been retrofitted with externally bonded fiber-reinforced polymer (EBFRP) composite systems. This fact finding mission was a rare opportunity to see in real time the efficacy of EBFRP application after significant seismic activity in an adverse environment where carbon fiber–reinforced polymer {CFRP} and glass fiber–reinforced polymer {GFRP} had been adhesively applied to the concrete for reinforcing the structures
Several reinforced concrete structures and in-depth inspections were performed at the McKinley Towers (MKT) and the Ted Stevens International Airport (TSIA). The inspections that were undertaken included visual inspections, acoustic sounding, IR thermography, and bond pull-off tests.
Cook Inlet, City of Anchorage
 In the 2019 project in Alaska, we looked at how the CFRP that had been installed had worked to improve the strength of critical structural components.  Its purpose was to help assuage the daily degradation of the locations to which they were applied post the seismic affects in an adverse environment in the sub-arctic. Our 10-day site evaluation, data collection and analysis afterward showed no major sign of earthquake in the FRP-retrofit but outdoor conditions may have led to bond deterioration between EBFRP and concrete ,” said Ahmed.
 The biting cold winds and sub-arctic temperatures in the working environment at this particular study, presented a stark contrast to the location where Ahmed began his career, when he worked for a year on the salty shores at the Bay of Bengal. How did this ardent engineer attain his training and what has motivated his journey to date

How did this ardent engineerattain his training and what has motivated his journey to date. The cyclone of 2007 that wiped out housing for hundreds of residents in Bangladesh inspired Ahmed to go beyond the comfort of his office life. After a year behind the desk as a structural engineer, Ahmed took a year to work ‘hands-on’ in Kuakata, Barisal, Bangladesh. Here, he helped to rebuild 800 of the small houses that were lost in the cyclone, working for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

I simply felt I had to do something to help,” said Ahmed. “When I returned home after 3 or 4 months, my mother was very upset about how I looked. I was thin, sunburned and worn out. She did not want me to go back to the work, but I insisted. I wanted to help people get their lives back. But I do admit the climate was brutal. Temperatures over 90 degrees F, humidity over 85 percent and the salty air by the Bay made work a struggle. But it taught me a lot, and most of all, it taught me I wanted to do more than sit behind a desk.
As a young boy growing up in Bangladesh, Shafique Ahmed nurtured dreams to become a professional sportsman. His beloved athletic pursuit, cricket, was not a popular career choice with his parents, so Ahmed had to satisfy himself with amateur status and set his sights on other career paths.
When I was in about Grade 7, my math teacher who was a brilliant geometry mind said something that resonated loudly with me. As a boy I was terrible at languages in school. Actually, it’s something I still struggle with today. The teacher told the class that for any of us that were not good at languages we should consider a career in mathematics, because it was a universal language.” This sage advice was perfectly timed for Ahmed, who then directed his curious nature to explore and learn well the pyramid scale of mathematics. Ahmed also excelled in physics and chemistry. When it came time for college the interest in these subjects was further channeled into an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering.
After my experiences building homes, I resumed my job at the structural engineering company. But my boss told me he could see that I was unsatisfied with the limits of my job, and was very frank. He told me I was not cut out for this and should consider taking a graduate course to further my career.” Ahmed’s wife also encouraged him to do the same, and thanks to attaining a position on a federally funded research project, Ahmed was able to pursue his graduate studies in the U.S.A.
Ahmed’s research during his doctoral studies focused on working with Professor Erik Thostensonon’s project using carbon nanotube-based composite materials to repair fatigue-damaged structures. The research work was evaluated by the FHWA during the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) assessment.
OLeary Library, University of Massachusetts Lowell

“ I was keen to work with a young enthusiastic professor so I headed to the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I worked full-time while attending graduate school, and then went on to do my doctoral studies for my Ph.D. at the University of Delaware, where I worked under Dr. Thomas Schumacher.”

Professor Erik Thostenson

Professor Erik Thostenson had already put many years into the development of carbon nanotube-based sensing technology. While Dr. Thostenson’s focus was on the science behind the technology, my experiences to that point guided me toward figuring out how to develop the nanotube technology for wider applications on a much larger scale. I am grateful to the Federal Highway for the funding of our research and development that resulted in the application of the carbon nanotube-based composite repair and monitoring system on two bridges, one in Portland, OR and one in Wilmington, DE. Professor Thostenson, Schumacher, McConnell and I, with other team members, took the carbon nanotube-based technology for structural repair and monitoring system from idea to proof of concept to prototype to real life application.

Professor Erik Thostenson had already put many years into the development of carbon nanotube-based sensing technology. While Dr. Thostenson’s focus was on the science behind the technology, my experiences to that point guided me toward figuring out how to develop the nanotube technology for wider applications on a much larger scale. I am grateful to the Federal Highway for the funding of our research and development that resulted in the application of the carbon nanotube-based composite repair and monitoring system on two bridges, one in Portland, OR and one in Wilmington, DE. Professor Thostenson, Schumacher, McConnell and I, with other team members, took the carbon nanotube-based technology for structural repair and monitoring system from idea to proof of concept to prototype to real life application.

In today’s world the real-life application of methodologies to repair and monitor the health of critical infrastructure is a topic of great interest to many engineers. Recent bridge and building collapses across the country and the world, frequently hit the news.  For many of us the fragility of our infrastructure is viewed with disbelief. How and why do these catastrophic failures happen and what can be done to prevent them? Ahmed stated that today, of 618,000 bridges in the U.S.A., over 18,000 have no redundancy built in (fracture critical). Furthermore, over 200,000 of these bridges are in need of major repair for degradation concerns.
washington tacoma narrows suspension bridge collapses
 Ahmed explained how many structures built over the post WWII period have significant issues in their original design and construction: “ There has been a lack of understanding on the part of architects and engineers concerning metal fatigue and stress. While placement of gigantic load bearing beams was implemented as part of the design, the matter of corner stress points and other details were overlooked. Metal corrosion issues, sharp angles at weight bearing high stress points that would be subject to failure, especially for bridges and structures designed with no redundant structural elements (meaning that if one critical member of the structure fails the entire structure may collapse) all factor into the issues we see today.

The problem with the surveys and inspections of structures is that traditionally they have only been done visually. Once a stress crack is found in a steel member, the most common approach to address it is to drill a hole at tip of the crack to mitigate further cracking. Composite patches also can be externally bonded to the damaged member to provide additional reinforcement. But naturally not just the reinforcing via patching is important, but how it is bonded to the existing structural element is critical. Further, engineers also want to know what is happening underneath the repair patches.”

Steel beam and pillar showing signs of fatigue

Paul Noyce, our Technical Director is very forward thinking when it comes to non-destructive methods of technology that can be used to investigate the real condition of the components of a bridge, parking lot or tunnel wall. Subsurface conditions of the materials cannot be seen with the naked eye. EChem utilizes technology such as MASPAR units that I have helped Paul Noyce develop with our own software and customizations beyond what the manufacturer produced. Our work is very varied and no day is the same. I am always learning and I am very happy for this opportunity.” 

Heroes Tunnel New Haven, Connecticut

Indeed, it is true that many buildings, bridges and other infrastructure does not marry and match to the design plans on record, and for some there are no original design plans available that the engineers can access. This is especially true with older structures.

Recent projects at EChem Consultants that Ahmed mentioned to demonstrate 

the use of technology in durability evaluations and analysis, was the data collected by the team using the vertical customization of the MASPAR unit in a tunnel structure.

We do electrochemical testing and a myriad of other methods to determine the degradation and existing deterioration and investigate the Chloride induced damage to reinforced concrete was evident in the tunnel due to the spray of de-icing salts applied during winter months being splashed onto the wall by vehicular access.  We offer rehabilitation and repair recommendations using the data-driven condition assessment and predictive analysis to understand the resistance and resilience of the structure.” Obviously structural health monitoring is something that needs to become a major part of the conversation and initiative, regardless of how infrastructure is retrofitted or repaired to improve its longevity and durability. Akin to a preventative medicine program, the implementation of a regular structural health check up could be improved by the use of real-time monitoring of areas of concern in ‘patients’ with known vulnerability to serious failure. Much as insulin can be monitored via devices in known diabetic patients, structural health monitoring of structures through the use of sensors is a logical forward step. This is another area of expertise that Ahmed is keen to develop.

When questioned about the recent collapse of the Surfside apartment building in Florida, Ahmed was open in his comments:

Aid Mission to Surfside condominium building collapse
The problem that I often see during the course of my work in general terms, and obviously I cannot comment on the Surfside issue specifically, is that the owner of a building very often employs a structural engineering company to assess and evaluate the integrity of the building. The structural engineers and the owner must then communicate as to the findings, and the often necessary further level of investigation must be completed to fully understand the depth of the problem utilizing specialist engineering companies who take the process a huge step further. What happened at Surfside is too sad to even be contemplated. But the chance for it to happen again should be mitigated however possible,” said Ahmed.
Ahmed is very aware and also very appreciative that his collaborative research and aspects of his career have to date been supported by organizations such as the Dept. of Transportation, The National Science Foundation, the Federal Highway Commission and other entities, Ahmed is driven to pay this support forward. It is Ahmed’s sincere abilities to teach and translate complicated topics in a way that is engaging and approachable that stood out in this interview. Obviously, his mathematical intelligence and proven methodologies for non-destructive testing data analysis are front and center at EChem Consultants. His mentor at the company, Paul Noyce, himself a noted material science expert in concrete durability and corrosion engineering, has shared a wealth of knowledge with Ahmed.  The two minds have come together to provide ‘outside the box’ solutions for resolution of structural issues commonplace in today’s aging infrastructure.
But, it is Ahmed’s desire to continue his research in a real-life environment and application, together with his altruistic nature mentioned earlier, and his aspiration to give back to the country which has given him such opportunities, that provides insight that Dr. Ahmed will one day be teaching eager new engineers better ways to do what they need to do, to make a difference.

Together with his wife Rifat, who is pursuing her own Ph.D. in Political Science, Ahmed has recently become a parent. So the legacy of building a bright future for the next generation is very much a part of what drives this scientist, and this author is certain he will attain his goal. 

About Echem Consultants:

Echem Consultants LLC is a material science consultancy whose primary focus is understanding material durability of the built environment. Through our Life 52® assessment approach [Laboratory, Inspection, Field Services, Engineered Design], we assist Architects, Engineers, and structure owners with long-term durability planning and predictive service life modeling for critical infrastructure 52 weeks a year.  An additional advantage to employment of EChem Consultants is its ownership status as a certified women-owned business (WBE) and disadvantaged business (DBE) enterprise, thus fulfilling minority requirements for local, state, and federal contracts which have M/WBE or DBE set asides. Echem provides niche expertise in complex problem solving for critical infrastructure, landmark buildings, and new construction.

For more information, please contact Echem’s marketing department at 845-215-4370.

About Nikki Alvin-Smith: British/American Nikki Alvin-Smithi s a seasoned Content Writer with a background in international commerce. Her works have been published worldwide across many genres including construction, investment, international freight forwarding, real estate, travel, the equestrian and pet industry and number in the thousands. Through her media enterprise company Horse in a Kilt Media Inc. Nikki collaborates with a variety of clientele to address their writing and PR needs, from Mom and Pop operators to Fortune 500 companies, from B-list movie/TV celebrities to Olympic athletes. Services include production of creative assets such as ghostwritten books, feature articles, blogs, vlogs, column writing, scriptwriting, speechwriting to copy for Executive Summaries, press releases, event coverage, brand building and marketing strategy. Additionally Nikki Alvin-Smith is an international level Grand Prix dressage competitor, coach and worldwide clinician. Together with her husband Paul, also a Grand Prix dressage rider, she lives in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York and operates an organic hay farm and dressage yard.