Versarien delivers first-of-a-kind UK highways structure
By David Wood | 18th July 2023
The first-ever 3D-printed concrete headwall is being trialled as part of a road upgrade in Cornwall.
The headwall on the A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross has been built and delivered by Gloucestershire-based advanced materials engineering company Versarien.
Headwall structures are traditionally made from precast concrete, utilising extensive steel reinforcement and limited in their shape, but the innovative 3D printed curved headwall, which requires no steelwork, was installed last month by Costain as a trial on one of the dualling project's under-road wildlife crossings.
Once completed, the scheme will provide 33 multi-species crossing across the length of the new 8.7-mile dual carriageway.
The innovation project is part of the Digital Roads of the Future Partnership, a collaboration led by Costain with partner company Versarien, the University of Cambridge and National Highways, and it's the first trial of its kind for the company responsible for England's major A roads and motorways.
The 2.3-tonne curved headwall is constructed using an alkali-activated cementitious material and a 3D printer.
Dr Stephen Hodge, Versarien's chief technology officer, said: "We are incredibly proud to have built and delivered this first-of-a-kind UK highways structure that has certainly showcased our 3D print team's capabilities while building project partners' confidence in adopting innovative methods of construction."
The first trial headwall was printed at Versarien's Forest of Dean operations centre in December, and during the printing process a number of sensors were embedded into the structure by Cambridge University researchers to provide temperature and movement data.
Headwalls are retaining walls built at the inlet or outlet of drainage or culvert pipes, and are installed to reduce any erosion to the pipe and surrounding area caused by water flows.
A headwall was chosen for the trial because of the ease of access for installation and monitoring, and once removed, the technology could be expanded to other areas once proved successful.
With the headwall in place on site, without affecting the operational highway, real-world data will be gathered by PhD students alongside post-doctoral researchers from Cambridge University.
This will provide a better understanding of the technology, materials characteristics and performance over time to support future uses and to understand its wider application within the construction industry.
The geometric shape of the product has been designed using curves instead of straight lines, and without the requirement of extensive steel reinforcement, this represents a significant and sustainable saving in costs and material.
Joanna White, National Highways' roads development director, said: "We're committed to exploring sustainable and innovative ways of constructing and maintaining our roads and this marks a significant first step as part of the work carried out by the Roads Research Alliance.
"It's a collective effort, we're pleased to be partnering with the University and our supply chain and through our collaborative funding and research, we look forward to realising and delivering further initiatives within the highways industry.
"Together we are developing ideas that will improve how we design, maintain, operate and build roads as well as increase safety on our network. This is the first time National Highways has formed an alliance like this to deliver research, and we look forward to seeing the exciting results."
Bhavika Ramrakhyani, head of materials at Costain, said: "I feel this has brought industry and academia together to support real-life trials of emerging technologies with lots of practical challenges to mitigate.
"These trials have assisted in undertaking further research and development towards the use of 3D concrete printing within the infrastructure industry as we need to understand the behaviour of the material and technology in real-life situations to be used for future infrastructure implementation.
"This provides a step change in the construction industry that there is no 'one size fits all', but different solutions are needed to combat climate change and increase productivity in parallel."
The A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross project has recently been shortlisted for a South West civil engineering award by the Institution of Civil Engineers.
On Friday, Punchline reported that Versarien had raised £650,000 (before expenses) by way of a placing of shares, using the proceeds for working capital purposes and as bridge finance to extend the company's cash runway ahead of any funds received from asset sales.
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