When John Hillman’s cell phone rings, out comes the tune of “Tom Sawyer,” released by the rock band Rush in 1981. The song is not just a favorite of Hillman’s—it comes as close to summing up his philosophy and personality as any one song could. A tribute to a “modern-day warrior,” it has inspired him to shrug off petty politics, win over skeptics and rebound from setbacks—all for the sake of an “obsession” that sets out to transform the infrastructure world for the better.

Creating change took about 14 years for Hillman and his patented creation, a structural beam consisting of a corrosion-resistant fiberglass box containing self-consolidating concrete, steel strands, foam and a pink and frilly-looking inflatable plastic bag. The Hybrid Composite Beam (HCB) is the result of endless sketches, headaches and hope. It took passion and persistence to sell the innately conservative world of public infrastructure owners and engineers on the lightweight HCB, which can carry fully loaded freight trains and last a century.

Now the change is happening. Three bridges have been built using HCBs. International interest is brewing. Fabrication for its longest application to date—the 540-ft-long Knickerbocker Bridge in Maine—is almost complete.

In an era of chronically underfunded and deteriorating American infrastructure, the need to find economical, durable and fast rehabilitation solutions is crucial. Scores of experts point to the HCB as a solution.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 26% of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. “That’s a total of over 160,000 bridges, and most of these are short spans suitable for HCB,” says Cosema Crawford, senior vice president at Louis Berger Group’s Morristown, N.J., office and former chief engineer of the New York City Transit Authority.

“This bridge can be assembled quickly, doesn’t require special contracting skills, requires no painting and little maintenance, is cheaper to build and is sustainable,” Crawford says. “The beam uses each material—composites, concrete, steel—in its most efficient form.”

A conventional two-span bridge of 140 ft might consist of six parallel precast-concrete beams spanning 70 ft between piers. These beams can be replaced by HCBs at a tenth of the typical weight. Each beam acts as a tied-arch bridge encased in a fiberglass box that provides corrosion protection, and the installation process is like formwork permanently left in place. Self-consolidating concrete provides compression. High-strength steel prestressing strands provide tension reinforcement .

The slightly higher up-front costs, which observers say will even out once mass production is achieved, are quickly offset by the elimination of heavy equipment and ease of placement. Most important, owners anticipate the beams will last 100 years or more.

“This is a game changer relative to marine and heavy-civil infrastructure,” says Ian Anderson, vice president of Innovative Infrastructure Solutions Canada Ltd., Cobourg, Ontario. IISC entered into an international licensing agreement in 2008 with HC Bridge Co. LLC., which Hillman and contractor partner Michael Zicko founded that same year.

IISC clients in Europe and Canada are ready to use the beams. “And why not?” says IISC President Glenn Burkett. “The technology is amazing. We’ve presented it to engineers in Canada and the European Union.” The unanimous reaction is: Why didn’t I think of that? he adds.

Award of Excellence Winner

For bridging the often distant worlds of composites and traditional civil engineering to develop an infrastructure...