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Two people standing in front of earthquake testing equipment in the MAST lab.

The equipment at MAST dwarfs the engineers in the bottom right corner of the picture.

Forces of nature: new MAST laboratory studies how to safeguard structures

new MAST laboratory studies how to safeguard structures

By Deane Morrison

Published on September 21, 2004; updated on September 30, 2004

Images of twisted bridges, collapsed houses, and people being pulled from the rubble--we've all seen them and shuddered at the destruction wrought by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like. But what if we could design buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure to withstand these primal forces?

On September 21, the University of Minnesota unveiled its contribution to the effort: the new MAST (Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing) laboratory.

If you visited MAST during the open house test that day, you would have seen massive equipment compressing, pulling, and twisting walls, beams, or some other supporting structures to investigate how they responds to forces comparable to nature's strongest. MAST can handle--and manhandle--structures up to 25 feet tall. A major goal is to help researchers around the country design structures better able to withstand the worst nature can offer. But researchers won't have to come to Minnesota to get the benefit of MAST. Through Internet2 linkups, scientists the world over can perform experiments with MAST, watch the experiments and receive data.

The principal investigator for the University's share of the project is civil engineering professor Catherine French. Faculty from the department of electrical and computer engineering and the department of computer science and engineering are also involved.

"Typically, we like to test large-scale pieces of buildings to understand how those structures will behave in earthquakes," says French. "If they fail, we can then develop ways to retrofit existing buildings to prepare them for earthquakes. Also, we want to test new materials and construction methods to codify how structural engineers might make use of our findings in new buildings."

The $11.5 million MAST Lab, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is one of 16 sites in the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). The network links centers around the country, each researching different aspects of earthquakes. MAST is one of the six centers in NEES that can study large-scale forces.

For more about MAST, visit

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