updated 11/15/2004 9:36:25 PM ET 2004-11-16T02:36:25

Scientists produced the first simulated earthquakes Monday designed to test how well common building materials and critical infrastructure such as power lines can withstand a quake’s destructive forces.

Researchers at the four laboratories around the country hope their findings will help engineers devise stronger power lines, telecommunications cables, and pipes for water and fuel.

Earthquakes “can cause critically important pipelines to buckle or collapse like an accordion,” said Harry Stewart, director of Cornell University’s new $2.1 million lab.

The lab allows scientists to use powerful hydraulic presses and a 20-foot-tall (6-meter-tall) wall of concrete to produce shearing forces that would exceed even the strongest recorded earthquake.

The equipment can be used to test buried materials such as pipes, as well as aboveground structures like bridges, Stewart said.

Similar demonstrations took place Monday at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Oregon State University and the University of California at San Diego.

At Cornell, researchers simulated the effect of an earthquake on a 30-foot (9-meter) section of 6-inch (15-centimeter) polyethylene piping, typical of the kind used to deliver natural gas, Stewart said.

The pipe was buried in a trough containing 12½ tons of sand. The hydraulic presses applied 25,000 pounds (11,364 kilograms) of pressure to the ends of the pipe, causing it to buckle several feet.

The pipe buckled more quickly than expected, and off center.

“That’s why we need to do this research,” Stewart said.

Cornell is among 15 universities participating in the National Science Foundation’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. The network links the laboratories through the Internet, allowing researchers to share data as experiments take place.

The network “will enable engineers to push the boundaries of design” to create safer, more earthquake-resistant buildings, said Jesus de la Garza, program director of the foundation’s Information Technology and Infrastructure Systems demonstration.

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