Still recovering from the fallout of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan was hit with back to back earthquakes April 14 and 15, registering a 6.2 and 7 magnitude, respectively. The following day, a 7.8-magnitude quake hit Ecuador, and the death toll is now more than 500 people. These reminders of nature's destructive power come as the world gets set to mark the first anniversary of the worst earthquake in generations to hit Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.
The 7.8 magnitude quake that hit Kathmandu on April 25, 2015 was followed 17 days later by another of almost equal magnitude. The cost was massive: 8,617 lost their lives, 2.8 million people were displaced, 26 hospitals were damaged and 473,000 homes destroyed, the United Nations says. The estimated cost to rebuild was pegged at US$5 billion.
One Toronto-based startup aims to help make buildings that can withstand earthquakes of any magnitude. Kinetica is set to launch its Viscoelastic Coupling Damper (VCD) technology in the YC Condos development underway in downtown Toronto.
"Right now, buildings in Canada are designed to ride out an earthquake. This means they are designed and built to remain standing. That's what the building code requires," said Michael Montgomery, chief executive of Kinetica, who founded the company with University of Toronto professor Constantin Christopoulos.
"Even though a building remains standing, you can still have distributed architectural damage throughout. Our technology reduces that damage through the use of strategically placed dampers that mitigate wind-induced vibrations and enhance the building's seismic response," he added.
That technology is what led Deepak Pant, a structural engineer and researcher at Kinetica, to work with the company. Pant, born in Nepal, is all too familiar with the devastation earthquakes cause. Not only did his family survive the Nepal quake last year, though it forced his sister from her home in Kathmandu, but Pant himself lived through the magnitude 9 earthquake that hit northeastern Japan in 2011 while studying for his PhD in Tokyo.
"I was excited about the technology and the impact it can have, particularly given the growth in highrise buildings," Pant said, noting this is happening parallel to increasingly volatile weather patterns. Pant cites a report by the U.S. Green Building Council that expects the severity of windstorms and other natural hazards to worsen in the coming years as a result of climate change.
The technology, which was 15 years in the making, is the product of a collaboration between the University of Toronto and a Toronto-based engineering firm and was facilitated and partially funded by Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization with a mandate of building research-based partnerships.
"It's a great example of industry and academia coming together to achieve an important breakthrough in our field," said Tibor Kokai, lead structural engineer of YC Condos, and principal of Read Jones Christoffersen Engineers.
In many ways, it represents exactly the kind of collaboration the Liberal government is trying to foster with its innovation agenda and its $800 million investment, to be used over four years to support innovation clusters and networks.
Supporting innovation is one thing, but commercializing those innovations has long been an area where Canada has struggled. With the YC Condo development and its recent distribution agreement with Shanghai Lead Dynamic Engineering Inc., Kinetica has turned research into an in-demand product.
"From my experience, commercializing academic innovation leads to a much more innovative and competitive Canadian economy," Prof. Christopoulos said. "Canadians can directly benefit from these inventions. For example, in our case, leading to safer and more resilient infrastructure while giving Canadian companies an edge on the international stage where they can offer those new technologies and increase their competitiveness all over the world."
Kinetica took a material first developed by 3M in 1969 and used in buildings across North America and lower rise buildings in Asia, and reconfigured it for use in tall buildings constructed from reinforced concrete. VCD is made up of layers of rubber-like material bonded between steel plates and used to join large concrete walls, replacing traditional concrete and steel coupling beams.
"Our hypothesis at the beginning was, since these beams are so important, why don't we stick something in there that is much higher performing," Montgomery said. "We place the dampers in strategic locations in the building where they can act like shock absorbers in a car and provide a more dynamic response to wind or earthquake vibrations."
In addition to being the only known system that works efficiently for both wind and earthquake loads, Kinetica's technology doesn't take up real estate in a building, as many of the alternative solutions do, YC Condo's Kokai said. "It fits seamlessly with the architecture/structure of the building."
The VCDs for the YC Condos development will be installed in 2017, and the building is scheduled to be completed by 2018.
"People are looking for good engineering solutions to a growing problem," Montgomery said. "We can be part of global projects, locally. It's exciting."