Thanks to an increasing national awareness of infrastructure maintenance issues and the environment, composite materials are gaining support. But acceptance will not occur until regulatory agencies set official standards, say engineers who work with alternatives to traditional materials such as concrete and steel.

Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at the University of Maine, told the Composites 2010 convention on Feb. 9 that until the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials adds codes for bridges using fiber-reinforced polymer materials, they will never be mainstream. Without such a standard to back them up, engineers cannot risk using alternative materials, he said.

Alternative-energy builders also must push for global standards, added Matt Garran, supply-chain manager for the Cleveland-based American Wind Energy Association. He predicted that installation of U.S. wind turbines will increase by up to 30% a year for the next 20 years.

Use of composites, which cost more up front but offer potentially huge savings in life-cycle costs, has been stymied by the traditional low-bid award process. But advocates are encouraged by AASHTO’s recent approval of composites for concrete bridge decks and by the results of a Congressional caucus last summer.

“We’ve made progress from a legislative standpoint,” says John Busel, director of the growth initiative for the American Composites Manufacturers Association, the event’s sponsor. A visit last year to the composites research center in Maine by U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also helped, he said. However, “it all comes down to accountability.” He noted that state transportation departments currently have no federally-funded motivation to experiment with new materials.

Advocates hope that a Congressional proposal to require states to develop life-cycle policies and practices will help change that fact, They emphasized that many composites providers are small businesses—a focus of the Obama Administration.