A PAUT system scans a section of a steel structure.

Ultrasonic Testing Method Improves Corrosion Detection on Steel Bridges

A research implementation project completed by MnDOT’s Bridge Office shows that phased array ultrasonic 3-D scanning more accurately detects and measures corrosion on steel bridges than traditional methods. More accurate data will allow engineers to correctly evaluate bridge conditions, calculate safe load capacity and make better maintenance recommendations.

“The Phased Array Ultrasonic Testing System (PAUT) can acquire thousands more data points than can traditional methods in the same amount of time, which makes PAUT technology very useful,” said William Lee Nelson, a MnDOT bridge engineering specialist.

What Was the Need?

Corrosion on steel bridges results from exposure to environmental elements and deicing chemicals, and can lead to loss of steel thickness, with subsequent functional and structural issues. Regular inspection to detect and monitor fatigue cracking and other structural damage is critical to extending bridge performance and ensuring traveler safety on the approximately 13,000 bridges in Minnesota. While MnDOT is committed to improving its infrastructure, increasing costs of bridge inspections and maintenance have prompted the agency to seek innovative methods for performing inspections.

Bridge inspectors have been using conventional ultrasonic devices and hand measuring techniques to evaluate corrosion for many years. However, it is not always possible to obtain complete and accurate data using those methods. Accurate steel thickness and corrosion mapping data is critical for bridge engineers to correctly evaluate bridge conditions, calculate safe load capacity and make better maintenance decisions. Without quality data, bridge engineers may make recommendations that can lead to unnecessary and expensive repairs.

Newer versions of ultrasonic devices—such as the phased array ultrasonic testing (PAUT) system—use 3-D scanning technology to produce enhanced images and data. One of the advantages of PAUT devices over conventional ultrasonic models is that they provide thousands more data points, allowing engineers to more accurately measure steel thickness and predict maintenance issues and costs. Another benefit of PAUT devices is that they collect corrosion mapping data much more quickly than conventional ultrasonic devices, which improves safety and efficiency by reducing the time bridge inspectors spend on the bridge.

What Was Our Goal?

The goal of this project was to provide bridge inspectors with training and equipment to collect high-quality data by using the 3-D scanning technology of a PAUT system. The enhanced data would enable bridge engineers to make more accurate assessments of bridge condition and more cost-effective maintenance recommendations.

What Did We Implement?

Investigators reviewed the literature on projects evaluating PAUT systems and identified several studies that assessed these devices favorably. They selected an Olympus OmniScan SX PAUT system for use in this project and used the collected information from the literature review as a point of reference for their field observation testing.

How Did We Do It?

After MnDOT bridge inspectors were trained in the OmniScan PAUT system, they used it to obtain corrosion mapping data for four steel structures in Minnesota: the Sorlie Bridge (Polk County), the Baudette Bridge (Baudette), a high mast light (Duluth) and a test specimen from the Silverdale Bridge (Grant). The project team then compared the PAUT system data with data obtained from traditional (single-beam) ultrasonic methods and traditional field measuring methods.

What Was the Impact?

The comparison showed that the PAUT equipment provided more complete and more accurate corrosion mapping data than did the single-beam ultrasonic and traditional field measuring methods. Based on the findings of the literature review, field observations and the data collected, the project team noted other benefits of using PAUT technology for bridge inspection, including:

  • Accurately determines the thickness and section of structural steel members, allowing engineers to make better recommendations on load capacity.
  • Establishes baseline measurements to better predict maintenance costs.
  • Provides high-quality data that allows engineers to make better repair and maintenance recommendations to avoid unnecessary and costly repairs.
  • Collects inspection data quickly, resulting in time and cost savings for bridge inspectors in the field.

What’s Next?

MnDOT will begin deploying the PAUT system to conduct corrosion inspection of steel bridges and ancillary structures throughout Minnesota. MnDOT will also update the nondestructive testing content in MnDOT’s Bridge and Structure Inspection Program Manual.

Additionally, MnDOT plans to develop and write inspection procedures for the PAUT system and to distribute information about PAUT deployment, targeting MnDOT bridge inspection units, bridge engineers and bridge owners.

This post pertains to Report 2017-33, “Phased Array Ultrasonic Steel Corrosion Mapping for Bridges and Ancillary Structures.”

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