Nabil F. Grace Ph.D, PE
Innovation Keeps Lawrence Tech's Civil Engineering Program Growing
Lawrence Technological University’s civil engineering program has experienced double-digit annual enrollment growth in recent years, capped by a 24 percent increase in undergraduate majors for the current spring term. How can a small private university with higher tuition than public universities keep attracting more students, especially during a downturn in Michigan’s economy?
Nabil Grace, university distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, says he has mainly relied on a single guiding principle to sustain this growth – innovation.
Since his arrival at Lawrence Tech from the private sector in 1988, Grace has won more than 20 grants and contracts totaling more than $13 million with his proposals for innovative research. The steady flow of grant money has set in motion a cycle of creativity in the civil engineering program.
What sets civil engineering at Lawrence Tech apart from programs at most other universities is that the research projects have a direct impact on the quality of the educational experience for both undergraduate and graduate students.
“Schools must have outstanding professors and good students in order to grow. We have been able to attract both at Lawrence Tech with innovative projects that win the support of grants,” Grace said. “It has to be a continuous process. You can never stop innovating if you want to continue to grow and improve.”
Finding innovative ways to improve civil engineering is a guiding force in Grace’s professional career. A native of Egypt who earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Cairo University, Grace came to the United States by way of the University of Windsor, where he earned his master’s degree in 1981 and his PhD in 1986.
For four years he worked at Giffels Associates of Southfield, where he was a group leader. It was there that he gained a greater appreciation for the ability of private enterprise to solve problems more quickly. He also saw there is no substitute for experience in the field.
Much of Grace’s research has centered on replacing steel in the concrete structure of bridges with carbon fiber in order to virtually eliminate the corrosion damage caused by salt and other chemicals. That improvement should double the lifespan of bridges in states like Michigan that have harsh winter conditions.
In 2004, Grace was awarded a U.S. patent for hybrid ductile fabric based on his National Science Foundation-funded research on carbonfiber reinforced polymer materials. The name has also been copyrighted. In addition, he received a patent for an innovative corrosion-free box beam bridge system in 2007 and has applied for a patent for a composite armor structure to be used on military vehicles.
In 2005, Grace secured a major new source of funding for his research when the U.S. Army recognized that his research had tremendous potential for military applications. Lawrence Tech began a five-year, $11 million cooperative agreement involving both the Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan.
To make that type of sophisticated research possible, the contract agreement provided funding for construction of Lawrence Tech’s $3.2 million Center for Innovative Materials Research (CIMR). The 7,200-square-foot research facility, dedicated in 2008, features a 30-foot clearance height to accommodate testing of full-scale structural components, such as portable battlefield bridges, up to 100 feet long.
Researchers can test structures subjected to various types of loads up to one million pounds. A fire chamber with dynamic and static loading capabilities, which can reach 2,300°F, can simulate conditions like those of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. A full-scale environmental chamber will simulate harsh weather conditions.
Current research projects at CIMR are supported by a variety of grants that Grace has attracted with innovative proposals, including:
Michigan 21st Century Fund, Michigan Economic Development Corp., 2006-11, $899,996.
Michigan Department of Transportation, 2006-09, $168,000.
U. S. Department of Defense, 2006-10, $1 million.
U.S. Department of Transportation, 2006-10, $1.17 million.
National Science Foundation, 2005-09, $400,000.