Bridge and CFRP pioneer with global reputation

Urs Meier with ’his’ working materials: CFRP strips and concrete. ImUrs Meier with ’his’ working materials: CFRP strips and concrete. Image: Empa

Using carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP) in construction was considered revolutionary, if not utopian, a good 40 years ago. Urs Meier, the former director of Empa’s Dübendorf campus, who came up with this idea and contributed significantly to its realization through his research and developments, will celebrate his 80th birthday on 8 January 2023.

Since the 1980s, Urs Meier has been a global pioneer in the research, development and application of carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP) in the construction industry. His idea of using the material, which until then had only been used in aerospace and aviation, in this more "earthly" field has triggered numerous innovations ever since. The subsequent reinforcement of buildings and other structures with CFRP is an ecologically sensible measure, as it contributes to reducing the consumption of resources in construction: Oftentimes, the energyand resource-intensive construction of new buildings can be avoided because CFRP can be used to repair structural damage or adapt existing buildings to new requirements. The developments of Urs Meier and his research group have opened up new business areas for a number of Swiss companies and have thus helped strengthen Switzerland as a hub for innovation. Today, CFRPs are state of the art in the construction industry.

CFRPs in lamellar form were used for the first time for the renovation of the Ibach bridge in Lucerne in 1991. CFRPs are much lighter, more fatigueand corrosion-resistant than the steel strips that had been used in the past. Since then, numerous successful projects have followed, such as the opening of the Storchenbrücke in Winterthur in 1996, where two supporting cables made entirely of CFRP were installed for the very first time.

But structures always have a cultural aspect, too. The use of CFRP laminates in the refurbishment of historic structures such as the Reuss Bridge in Sins and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich made a contribution to the preservation of our cultural heritage. The amount of CFRP used each year is therefore steadily increasing. This was only possible thanks to Urs Meier’s tireless efforts. He continues to shape and accompany the development to this day.

Audio Podcast Special episode: The long road to building practice - with Prof. Urs Meier, former Empa Director in Dübendorf

It often takes a long time for new materials to find their way into construction practice. Someone who knows this particularly well is Prof. Urs Meier, long-time director of Empa at the Dübendorf site and a world-renowned pioneer in the use of carbon fiber-reinforced polymers in construction. In this special episode on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Peter Richner talks to him on how he came up with the idea of developing this innovative material 40 years ago and what hurdles and challenges had to be overcome before it was used in the first pilot projects. The two also talk about the enormous opportunities that carbon fiber-reinforced polymers offer for the construction sector and how we can use air to build bridges in the future.

Link to podcast episode (in German) :

During his career, Meier acquired several patents and published around 300 scientific and technical papers. He gave hundreds of lectures, courses and keynotes around the world to promote the use of composites, especially CFRP in construction. Meier has also received a number of prestigious awards: In 2004, the Canada Research Network thanked him for his years of collaboration with a scholarship named after him, the Urs Meier Scholarschip. In 2005, the Royal Military College of Canada awarded him an honorary doctorate, honoring him as the "intellectual originator of Canada’s successes in the field of carbon fiber-reinforced structures." The following year, the International Society for Fiber-Reinforced Plastics in Construction (IIFC) honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award. This was followed in 2007 by the Fellowship Award of the International Society for Structural Health Monitoring of Intelligent Infrastructure (ISHMII). In 2008, the Department of Materials at ETH Zurich awarded him the Staudinger-Durrer Medal on the occasion of his retirement for his many years of lecturing at the university. His course on Composite Materials was even described as "legendary", Urs Meier himself as "mediator between Empa and ETH Zurich" and the "face of composites at ETH as well as at Empa". In 2019, the CFRP pioneer received another prestigious award - the Fellow Award of the Society for the Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering (SAMPE), which is represented in around 40 countries. And in 2022, at the conclusion of the 18th European Bridge Conference in Edinburgh, Urs Meier was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his visionary research and developments at a festive event in Edinburgh’s historic Town Hall.

Even after his (official) retirement in 2008, Urs Meier remained at Empa and worked on various projects. One of the more recent works was an expert opinion on a rail bridge in Stuttgart-Degerloch. Originally, the bridge had been designed with conventional steel hangers, after which the idea of replacing the steel cables with prestressed CFRP hangers came up. In Germany, new products and structures of this kind require building authority approval - in this case, an "approval in individual cases" was possible for the completely new construction product - which in turn required a detailed proof of suitability. In addition to fatigue properties of the CFRP ropes, Meier therefore also took into account issues relating to weather resistance, lightning or fire; the influence of electric and magnetic fields as well as vandalism was also considered. In 2018, the Baden-Württemberg approval authority permitted the use of CFRP hangers in the construction of the bridge, subject to certain conditions. The delicate 127-meter-long rail bridge over the A8 freeway near Stuttgart, which opened in 2020 and whose 72 suspension cables were manufactured entirely of CFRP by Carbo-Link in Fehraltorf, an Empa spin-off, was recently awarded the 2022 German Engineering Award - another recognition of Urs Meier’s pioneering ideas.

Curriculum Vitae (excerpt)

In 1968, Urs Meier graduated from ETH Zurich as a civil engineer and then joined Empa as a project manager for the investigation of large structural components. In 1972, he was appointed head of Empa’s Plastics/Composites lab, and in 1979 head of the Building Materials department. From 1989, he led Empa’s Dübendorf campus as Director, and in 2002 he was appointed Deputy Head of Empa, retiring (partially) in 2008. Urs Meier spent the years 1971/72 and 1977/78 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Since 1975, he has lectured at ETH Zurich, and in 1989 ETH Zurich awarded him the title of professor. Meier has repeatedly received prestigious awards for his work, for example in the "Technologiestandort Schweiz" competition in 1990. Urs Meier celebrated his 80th birthday on 8 January 2023.