U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content
Facebook iconYouTube iconTwitter iconFlickr iconLinkedIn

Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

Public Roads
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Public Roads Home | Current Issue | Past Issues | Subscriptions | Article Reprints | Guidelines for Authors: Public Roads Magazine | Sign Up for E-Version of Public Roads | Search Public Roads
Back to Publication List        
Publication Number:      Date:  Winter 1996
Issue No: Vol. 59 No. 3
Date: Winter 1996


The CONMAT Initiative: Charting an Innovative Path to the Next Century

by Harvey M. Bernstein and Richard A. Belle

The CONMAT Era Begins

Choride deicing salts were the probable cause of this bridge damage.It may not be obvious at this time, but Aug. 24, 1995, may go down in history as the beginning of a new era for the transportation community. On that date, representatives from 11 different basic construction material (CONMAT) groups formally joined forces to create the CONMAT Council. This industry-led group has taken upon itself an unambiguously fundamental task creating the materials and systems for a revitalized infrastructure capable of withstanding the demands of the next century. The CONMAT program, emphasizing the research, development, and deployment of high -performance contruction materials and systems, is ambitious. A 10-year, $2 billion national program focuses on using the rapid advances in material sciences, engineering, computing and telecommunications to "push the envelope" and change the way we build, repair, and maintain our infrastructure. This article describes some key elements of the CONMAT program and suggests what it could mean for the nation's highway and bridge systems. It follows closely the description of the CONMAT plan as articulated in Materials for Tomorrow's Infrastructure: A Ten-Year Plan for Deploying High -Performance Construction Materials and Systems. (1)

The Problem

Readers of Public Roads know well the critical status of our nation's infrastructure. Many of our nation's bridges, highways, pipelines, and other key elements of an advanced infrastructure cannot meet current demands or require immediate repair or replacement. The statistics are sobering. The National Bridge Inventory reports that nearly one quarter of the nation's 575,000 bridges are at least 50 years old and unable to sustain current traffic demand. Approximately 230,000, or 40 percent, of the nation's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. (2)
As summarized in Public Roads, the 1993 Highway, Bridge and Transit Conditions and Performance (C&P) Report documents that approximately 118,500 bridges are structurally deficient.(3)

The state of disrepair is no better with our nation's highways, wastewater treatment plants, and sewer systems. For example, the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has calculated that 40 percent of federal-aid pavement falls below minimum engineering standards. Half of our nation's communities are unable to expand because their wastewater treatment plants are currently operating at or near close capacity. (4)
One study estimates that by the year 2005, $50 billion dollars a year will be lost in lost wages and wasted fuel caused by traffic delays resulting from inadequate roads. (5)

While such statistics and reports provide convincing evidence of an infrastructure badly in need of repair, the quiet fragility of our built environment has been made even more vivid by major natural disasters of the past few years: earthquakes in southern California, flooding in the Midwest, forest fires in the West, and hurricanes in the South and Southeast. For most observers, such events make even more clear the need to rebuild, in a systematic fashion, our nation's key public and private facilities.


CONMAT is more than just another program aimed at infrastructure renewal. It emphasizes the use of highperformance construction materials and systems in its mission. Developers of the CONMAT program consider the high-performance element essential to program success. What does the program mean by "high-performance"? Is it really that critical to the success of CONMAT?

While there is no simple quantitative metric for high-performance, the term is used to describe the improved performance of basic construction materials in areas vital to infrastructure renewal. CONMAT seeks to commercialize as quickly as possible critical breakthroughs in materials science and structural analysis research. An infrastructure using high-performance materials and systems will be characterized by:

Many of these capabilities have been demonstrated in the laboratory, or in non-construction-related applications, but have not been fully commercialized and marketed for the design and construction industry.

For example, the highest strength concretes commercially available are in the 70 MPa to 100 MPa range (10 ksi to 15 ksi), with some slightly higher used in building interiors. In the laboratory, strengths as high as 680 MPa (100 ksi), comparable to high-strength structural steels, have been reached. Think of what this greatly increased strength could mean for bridge repair and new construction once practical production methodologies have been developed and routinized!

Similarly, the high-strength, corrosion resistances, and design flexibility of fiber-reinforced polymer composites, clearly demonstrated in such areas as space flight vehicles and missiles, military and commercial aircraft, among others, has yet to "prove its case" in the design and construction market. In a similar vein, "smart" material devices, commonplace in such areas as piezoceramic copier devices, viscoelastic brake pads, and shape memory catheters, have only just begun to be used in construction applications.

Of course, a renewal program using only conventional materials would be able to address some of the pressing infrastructure repair needs. Merely reducing the backlog of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges is a significant undertaking. For instance, the C&P Report estimates that backlog requirements for the nation's bridges is $78 billion; a comparable figure for our highways is $212 billion. Yet relying exclusively on conventional materials and systems will not keep pace with the increased demands of a larger, more mobile population. Highway travel, for example, is expected to increase at an average annual rate of approximately 2.5 percent through 2011. (3)

Accordingly, merely bringing current facilities up to standard will be insufficient. Average life cycles of these facilities would not be improved, and would probably diminish, given the increased traffic demands. Major advances in durability, constructability, and maintainability would be hard to achieve.

CONMAT Participants

FRP composite jacketing protects steel reinforced concrete.While the formal creation of the CONMAT Council took place just a few months ago, the concept for such an organization began far earlier. Industry leaders representing basic construction material groups have gradually recognized the need to join forces in order to tackle key infrastructural problems that cannot be solved using the performance capabilities of a single construction material. Moreover, many of the tasks are not exclusively technical in nature but focus on overcoming barriers for transferring innovative technology to practice. Such areas as new product evaluation, life-cycle costing, and contract/bid system issues offer potential solutions. The council thus becomes a forum for the entire construction community.

Concrete and steel were the first material groups to begin the CONMAT dialogue, producing a rationale for the program as well as specific research agendas for their respective materials. (6)

They have since been joined on the CONMAT Council by nine additional groups: aluminum, coatings, fiber-reinforced polymer composites, hot mix asphalt, masonry, roofing materials, "smart" material devices and monitoring systems, stainless materials, and wood. The Civil Engineering Research Foundation (CERF) serves as secretariat for the council, holding responsibility for coordination and communication with all material groups.

Since the overriding objective of CONMAT is to use high-performance materials and systems comprehensively in the effort to elevate the quality and effectiveness of the nation's infrastructure, the council seeks to involve all basic construction materials and processes in its planning and operations. Accordingly, basic construction materials groups that are not currently part of the CONMAT process (e.g., geosynthetic materials) are encouraged to join the program.

While these industry-led material groups form the core element of the council, the CONMAT program also benefits from the liaison participation of government agencies, laboratories, and private organizations. More than a dozen government agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the General Services Administration (GSA) currently have programs in place supporting materials research in one or more areas. Some of these agencies (e.g., FHWA and NIST) have seen the value early on and have been extremely strong drivers/supporters of CONMAT, including helping to guide its initial formation and development.

All agencies with programs supporting materials research are encouraged to consider the specific CONMAT research priorities when developing their respective program budgets. Their liaison with the council is designed to make the best use of existing national resources, permitting industry and government to cooperate in research initiatives and maximize efficiency by avoiding duplication and leveraging limited research funds to the maximum extent possible. Similarly the participation of private organizations (e.g., the Electric Power Research Institute) enables material groups to work directly with groups whose mission frequently cross material lines.

Artist's rendering of the North Concho River Bridge in San Angelo, Texas.

Artistic renderings of the North Concho River, U.S. 87 and S.O. RR Overpass on U.S. 67 in San Angelo, Texas. This is one of the first bridges to be built in the United States fully using the benefits of high-performance concrete.

Budgets and Priorities

In preparing the budgets and specific project plans for the CONMAT program, each material group was asked to determine what "breakthroughs" had to be achieved in order to fully use the high-performance potential of the material.

Table 1 presents the 10-year budgets for each material group and some of the key objectives established to advance our ability to effectively use each material. Table 1 also presents an additional line item for those technology deployment activities that cut across two or more material groups and are directed through the CONMAT Council.

The variety in scope reflects the current state of material use in design and construction. For example, by far the largest budget component is for fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites, reflecting the fact that while impressive achievements have been made in such areas as military and commercial aircraft, space flight vehicles and missiles, and consumer products applications for the design and construction community are only now being developed.

Similarly, the smart material devices and monitoring systems group has extensive experience in developing products for the automotive industry and the medical profession, but fabrication and use of smart materials for rebuilding the infrastructure is but in its infancy. On the other hands, for materials traditionally involved in construction (concrete, steel, masonry, etc.), the emphasis is on specific enhancements in key areas (e.g., life-cycle performance), rather than comprehensive introduction to the marketplace.

Portable datalogger for monitoring sensors.The $2.1 billion budget is based on a creative partnership between industry and government. The goal is to maximize research opportunities by avoiding overlap or duplication of effort and by leveraging all resources.

CONMAT industry partners provide both dollars and in-kind services to support many of the key research and commercialization objectives deemed vital by their peers. Government support comes from funds that are already set aside for materials research; agencies are encouraged to use the prioritized research objectives of industry in developing the most effective means to leverage their funds with those of the private sector.

The resulting synergy is a win-win for both sets of participants: industry finds willing partners, possible demonstration opportunities, and matches for its research dollar, while government is able to more effectively target its budgeted programs already in place, by responding to the objective needs of the construction community.

The budget is a starting point, not an end in itself. Over the next 10 years, many of the projects detailed in the CONMAT program will be implemented. Some of these projects will lead to breakthrough approaches not currently conceived in the CONMAT program. The test of CONMAT's success will not be strict adherence to every project proposed in the CONMAT agenda, but rather whether the use of high-performance materials and systems has achieved its fundamental goal: creating a new infrastructure for the next century.

CONMAT's budget complements and builds on existing commitments to infrastructure renewal although it is significantly broader in scope than these efforts. Public Roads readers are familiar with many of these efforts. For example, the $150 million Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) developed more than 100 new products and techniques between 1987 and 1993.

The focus was more narrow than CONMAT, concentrating on four highway technology areas: asphalt, concrete and structures, highway operations, and long-term pavement performance (LTPP). The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) helps states and industry to commercialize SHRP research results and to continue LTPP studies. The Applied Research and Technology (ART) Program, authorized by ISTEA, is aimed at the testing and evaluation of these new technologies and products, using the structure and process of CERF's Highway Innovative Technology Evaluation Center (HITEC). While these programs are making invaluable contributions to improvements in highway products and technology, the CONMAT agenda, which supports materials and systems innovation in a wide range of infrastructure applications, addresses needs and concerns not covered by these programs.(7)

Table 1 - Ten-Year Budgets and Key Objectives by Material Groups

Material Groups Key Objectives Ten-Year Budget
Aluminum Optimization of aluminum alloys and structural systems to demonstrate competitive life-cycle cost for bridges and structures for severe environments $ 48,250,000
Coating Enhancement of environmental characteristics and improvement in the overall life-cycle costs of coated structures $ 150,450,000
Composites Creation of a new generation of bridge, marine and utility structures with the benefits of reduced life-cycle costs and construction time $ 882,750,000
Concrete In-place quality improvements and optimized design for durability and strength enhancement $ 171, 950,000
Hor Mix Asphalt In-place quality and environmental acceptability NA*
Masonry Construction quality enhancement and natural hazard reduction $ 68,450,000
Roofing Extended service life and energy conservation $ 103,500,000
Smart Materials Technology development communications and sensors focusing on life-cycle cost reduction $ 206,000,000
Stainless Materials Corrosion resistance and increased life-cycle performance NA*
Steel Enhancements in materials predictability, and life-cycle performance $190,560,000
Wood New product forms with enhanced durability, strength, and affordability $ 69,950,000
Technology Deployment Integrated knowledge base, technical education, life-cycle costing procedure, evaluation, and prototype demonstrations. $ 189,186,000
TOTAL $2,081,046,000

* Specific funding levels have not been established at this time.

A Ten-Year Vision

To create an industry-wide vision, attention must be paid to innovation in materials and systems. In order to help educate the public on the scope and power of this vision, CERF has initiated an innovative awards program that recognizes organizations working to bring innovative concepts and applications into construction industry practice.

To strengthen and vivify the CONMAT vision, the 1996 award program will identify and reward innovative concepts in the use of high-performance materials and systems to develop new design concepts for highway bridges. The evaluation jury, including representatives from FHWA, Engineering News Record , and Civil Engineering Magazine, among others, will provide graphic and specific examples of how the creative use of high-performance materials can design and build enduring facilities whose structural performance surpasses traditional standards.

The vision becomes even more vivid as CONMAT projects are implemented. The CONMAT program includes literally hundreds of specific research projects, some of them material-specific, though many involve the use of two or more high-performance materials.
The paramount end goal for all of these projects is to demonstrate how highperformance materials can make significant improvements in the construction and repair/retrofit of key elements of the infrastructure.

While no summary can do full justice to the program, a few examples may provide a sense of what a fully implemented CONMAT program will contribute to our nation's built facilities.

Calling on the Highway Community

Aluminum girder bridge structure, Sunrise Highway Overpass, New York. CONMAT will make an impact in transforming the nation's infrastructure only if it continues to be an industry-led program. The 11 material groups represented on the CONMAT Council are dedicated to cooperative ventures that may extend beyond their current market niche. A commitment to technology deployment and commercialization in partnership with the federal government and other public agencies is key to program success. Such a partnership becomes a win-win effort for all sides.

The 10-year research, development, and deployment program that supports this vision is presented in full in the report described above. The agenda is a dynamic one; however, it is constantly evolving as the needs of industry change and research objectives are modified. The Public Roads readership can have a significant role in creating this agenda and helping to demonstrate effective, commercially feasible applications. The CONMAT materials groups and liaison groups need individuals and organizations who will impart their perspective on how best to rebuild our nation's infrastructure. These participants will help to avoid research duplication and will be critical in leveraging limited resources. The CONMAT program welcomes the growing interest of the highway community and looks forward to demonstrating innovative design and construction in partnership with owners, users, fabricators, and suppliers of a new generation of high-performance materials and systems.

For more information on the CONMAT program, please contact Richard A. Belle, CONMAT manager, at (202) 842 -0555, or email at rbelle@cerf.asce.org.


(1) Materials for Tomorrow's Infrastructure: A Ten-Year Plan for Deploying High-Performance Construction Materials and Systems, CERF Reports 94-5011 and 94-5011.E (Technical and Executive Reports), Civil Engineering Research Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1994.

(2) "National Bridge Inventory" (Chapter 3), Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program, Eleventh Report of the Secretary of Transportation to the United States Congress, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, D.C., 1993.

(3) "Highway, Bridge, and Transit Conditions and Performance," Public Roads, Vol. 57, No. 1, Summer 1995, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, D.C., pp 8-15.

(4) Investing in Our Future, Portland Cement Association, 1992.

(5) Infrastructure A Good Investment, American Society of Civil Engineers, 1992.

(6) High-Performance Construction Materials and Systems: An Essential Program for America and its Infrastructure, CERF Reports 93-5011 and 93-5011.E (Technical and Executive Reports), Civil Engineering Research Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1993.

(7) Brief overviews of the objectives of ART, ISTEA, and SHRP are found in "Applied Research and Technology: New Guidelines for Accelerating the Use of Innovative Technology by the Highway Industry" and "FHWA's Implementation Plan for SHRP Products," both articles in Public Roads, Vol. 57, No. 3, Winter 1994, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, D.C.

Harvey M. Bernstein is the president and chief executive officer of CERF, the research arm of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He also serves as the assistant secretary for research on the ASCE Board of Direction. CERF integrates diverse groups within the civil engineering community to facilitate, coordinate, and integrate common solutions to complex research challenges facing the civil engineering profession and the nation. He brings almost 30 years of management consulting experience with the federal government and private sector. He is co-author of the book Solving the Innovation Puzzle: Challenges Facing the Design and Construction Industry. Bernstein serves on the Publications Board of Public Roads and the Editorial Advisory Board of Construction Business Review. He is a member of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and a graduate of ASAE's Certified Association Executive program. He holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a master's degree in civil engineering from Princeton University, and a master's degree in business administration from Loyola College.

Richard A. Belle is manager of the CONMAT program at CERF. He is the principal author of the December 1994 CONMAT report Materials for Tomorrow's Infrastructure: A Ten-Year Plan for Deploying High-Performance Construction Materials and Systems and of A Nationwide Survey of Civil Engineering-Related R&D, a baseline study of research investment in the design and construction community. Belle has directed a number of market studies focusing on the near- and long-term commercial opportunities for specific construction materials and has written extensively on innovative construction materials and systems research. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Wisconsin and has completed advanced work in total quality management, survey methodol.




Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000
Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center | 6300 Georgetown Pike | McLean, VA | 22101