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FIU builds its case as an innovator during national Infrastructure Week
At the FIU Engineering Center: Atorod Azizinamini, director of Infrastructure Research and Innovation, demonstrates ultra-high performance concrete to visiting officials. The material is considered stronger and more impermeable to water, making it a fit for coastal areas facing rising sea levels.

FIU builds its case as an innovator during national Infrastructure Week

June 7, 2024 at 1:40pm

The nation’s annual Infrastructure Week took place last month to highlight challenges, spotlight potential solutions and celebrate federal investments, but it was FIU and its new student body president that snagged much of the glory.

Student Government Association President Francesca Casanova wowed folks on Capitol Hill when they learned of her civil engineering major. Her educational background proved an ideal fit as she joined faculty who had gathered in Washington, D.C., to advocate for FIU to members of Congress, participate in important dialogue and gather with heads of federal agencies as they talked up the university’s research strengths in resilient infrastructure and innovative technology. From the moment her plane touched down, Casanova was all in, rushing to be introduced in the offices of legislators well-acquainted with FIU’s research brawn.

“That, for me, was an eye-opener,” Casanova says, “to be up there and see the scope and level of research that we’re doing. I was like, ‘Wow this is insane.’”

All eyes on FIU

Coordinated by Accelerator Action for America, Infrastructure Week brought together top authorities and a range of stakeholders around a critical issue that impacts everyone.

FIU has shown itself integral to efforts to improve and safeguard the built environment as it leads federally funded projects related to issues such as sustainability and hurricane mitigation. The university’s solid record in these arenas continues to draw wide interest, with the potential to attract more opportunities.

“It was very advantageous to host national and local corporate leaders to open new doors for FIU’s efforts in advancing top research in energy resiliency,” said Professor Arif Sarwat of the College of Engineering. “It was also positive to have them acknowledge our leadership in renewable energy.”

Sarwat is an ongoing collaborator with the U.S. Department of Energy and Florida power companies. Electrical-grid infrastructure is indespensible to every facet of life, from basics such as water treatment to higher-order activities that keep economies afloat. Sarwat’s work inolves analyzing South Florida’s electricity usage and capacity to understand how solar and other renewable sources might be integrated.

Sarwat joined colleagues from the College of Engineering as well as scientists from FIU’s Institute of Environment at a national briefing, presented in collaboration with Miami-Dade County, on Florida’s ClimateReady Tech hub. FIU is helping lead the initiative, which aims to advance sustainable and resilient infrastructure solutions for the global climate crisis.

The hub seeks to advance technologies in the service of three areas, among them energy efficiency, which includes the type of work Sarwat and his team have undertaken, as well as two others in which FIU is highly involved: using clean cement and concrete in building infrastructure, and creating artificial and hybrid coastal features such as reefs to defend against storm surges while promoting marine biodiversity.

Rita Teutonico, associate dean of research, shared work on such types of reefs that dovetails with innovations by Professor Atorod Azininamini, the head of FIU’s federally funded bridge engineering program, who has partnered with firms on the 3D printing of reefs. He is an expert on ultra-high performance concrete, a material with low permeability that resists saltwater ingress and can protect structural elements against corrosion.

In the labs

Beyond the nation’s capital, where FIU maintains a center for eduation and engagement, the university capitalized on Infrastructure Week to invite high-level visitors to its locations in Miami.

For example, on both of its campuses, the university brought together leaders of the United States Army Corps of Engineers with researchers and students for tours of its federally funded labs related to the corps’ priorities, among them facilities involved with cold spray technologies, an “additive manufacturing” technique relevant to 3D printing and materials coating; accelerated bridge construction; robotics and autonomous systems for coastal conservation and restoration; and others.

At the freestanding Engineering Center, Professor Arindam Gan Chowdhury demonstrated the powerful Wall of Wind, the largest natural disaster testing facility of its kind at a university. The National Science Foundation-funded research lab can generate winds with speeds of up to 157 miles per hour to test everything from building components to entire structures in simulated Category 5 hurricane conditions. Work there has had an impact on materials and products used in construction as well as building-code standards, all in efforts to safeguard the built environment at a time when the annual hurricane season appears to be getting more dangerousThe Wall of Wind recently received a new federal allocation to expand research.

Looking to the future, Chowdhury and other top faculty discussed the ongoing design of a larger testing center, known for short as NICHE. Such a facility, currently in a $12.8 million design phase under FIU’s leadership, would have the capacity to simulate the combined effects of winds, ocean waves and overland water flows to create the perfect faux storm for experimental research in support of disaster mitigation. 

A student’s perspective

Meeting legislators, interacting with representatives of construction and engineering firms from around the country and simply learning more about her university’s place within the nation’s infrastructure plans and goals proved exciting and informative for Casanova in her new role as student body president.

At a reception early in Infrastructure Week, the aspiring civil engineer found herself perfectly positioned to speak with heads of various companies about the top-quality education she is receiving. Her presence as someone who will be soon be working in the field showcased FIU as a leading educator of engineers within Florida. That she received “five job offers” confirms the interest that industry shows in FIU graduates, the senior adds. “I have [collected] a stack of business cards.”

With a year of learning and advocating still ahead of her, Casanova recognizes that FIU’s research prowess is worth shouting about.

“It was great to see that,” she says of her time in D.C., “and it helps me understand more how powerful and how big of a university we really are and how much we’ve grown. Being that we’re 52 years young, it’s pretty impressive. 

Ignacio Olmos '22 contributed to this article.