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Pitt Engineer Recognized For Work Detecting Building Health

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Hao Sun
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University of Pittsburgh
(Left) MIT's Cecil and Ida Green Building, where Hao Sun has tested his prototype array of sensors. (Right) A diagram detailing Sun's placement of sensors in the Green Building.

A University of Pittsburgh researcher's work detecting the "health" of buildings has landed him a spot on Forbes' 30 Under 30 List in science.

Hao Sun, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt, has developed a method that could help detect structural problems in buildings after a damaging event such as an earthquake or a hurricane.

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Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
Hao Sun in his office at the University of Pittsburgh's Benedum Hall.

A natural disaster can cause structural damage that isn't always obvious from the exterior. Manual safety inspections led by one or a group of experts potentially put people in harm's way. 

Sun has developed a method for using a series of wireless sensors to figure out where buildings are damaged and how badly by measuring the vibrations within.

Buildings constantly experience vibration from a wide range of everyday activity.

"An elevator, the wind, even changes in temperature can generate small vibrations," said Sun.

The way a building vibrates is noticeably different if it is structurally "healthy," compared to after it sustains some damage. That difference is what Sun is trying to detect and measure with the sensors.

In addition to testing on scale models in the lab, Sun has been able to get a prototype system running on an building at Massachusets Institute of Technology, where he used to work.

In the future, Sun said the information gained from these systems of sensors could help engineers and architects better understand how to repair, maintain and design buildings.