Tough new tornado panels take a stormy beating

UAB's new panels can be retrofitted to existing houses and offer protection from winds of up to 250 mph (402 km/h)(Credit: University of Alabama at Birmingham)

A tornado hitting your house is no joke, but it's not always practical to build a shelter just in case the worst should happen. If the thought of jumping into a protective bag doesn't appeal, a new tough construction panel developed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) could be a good alternative. UAB's new panels can be retrofitted to existing houses or integrated into new builds, and offer protection even in the most extreme EF5 tornado – that is, in winds over 200 mph (321 km/h).

The panels were developed following the 2011 outbreak of tornados in Alabama, which was particularly severe and led to hundreds of deaths. The researchers, led by UAB's Uday Vaidya, PhD of UAB's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, worked with specialist firms Storm Resistant Systems and Cooper Structural Engineers to develop the panels.

You could think of the new panels as being somewhat similar to a standard structural insulated panel (SIP) used in many houses, except they're tough. Like, really tough. UAB's panels meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines, and can withstand a 15-lb (6.8-kg) 2 x 4 block of wood impacting at a speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) without issue.

"During a tornado or hurricane, you get a lot of two-by-fours flying in a home; a lot of debris is picked up, and it can actually penetrate inside a house," explains Vaidya. "People die from the debris that comes through the walls or other things, so we built panels that would resist the debris completely."

The idea is, you would cover the floor, ceiling and walls of a new or existing closet or room with the panels, paint if desired, and thus turn the space into a safe room for sheltering from a tornado. They don't require any protective coating, nor will they corrode over time, and while you probably still don't have the same level of safety you'd get from a specialist underground shelter, they take up practically no additional space.

The panels are sustainable too, and produced from a discarded liner used to wrap offshore oil-rig pipes, that would otherwise be destined for a landfill. UAB reports that the thermoplastic and fiberglass resins and fibers used in the panels are stronger per-unit density than the steel used in many standard shelters, but weigh up to 80 percent less.

The UAB researchers have successfully developed a prototype safe room in Vaidya's house that was designed to remain intact even if the house was destroyed, and they report that this is replicable in other new and old homes. They're now looking to make the new panels available to purchase.

Check out the video below for more information on the project.

Source: UAB

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