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Modelling safer tunnels in case of fire

A software platform developed in the TUNFEC project could make tunnels safer and save millions of euros in infrastructure development. It brings together data from multiple tools used to estimate fire risks when designing tunnels, giving engineers a detailed overview how a fire is likely to spread. The tool makes it possible to carry out automated fire-risk assessments in development and optimise designs before costly real-world testing.

“Tunnels are major infrastructure projects. Construction costs are in tens of millions euros per kilometre for highway tunnels and more than € 100 M per kilometre for underground railway tunnels. The overall worldwide market is in the hundreds of billions.”  says Byron Protopsaltis, research manager at project coordinator FIDES DV-Partner GmbH. “At least 5% of costs are spent on the design process.” He adds that many existing tunnels also need to be renovated and upgraded, requiring further design.

Fire safety is an essential part of this process, to limit harm to humans, the environment and the tunnel structure. For example, it is important to anticipate the many impacts of the ventilation system design, which strongly influences how a fire develops, and to ensure that emergency services can rescue people and put out a fire as quickly as possible.

The project makes an important contribution to improving safety in the transport sector.

TUNFEC’s platform can reduce costs by integrating diverse commercial tools used to model factors in a tunnel fire’s development, such as ventilation, smoke propagation, heat transfer and the tunnel lining. The platform also includes tools that TUNFEC developed to complete gaps in existing provision.

How the platform works

A single platform for all these tools brings a unified approach to their geometric modelling, network generation and data processing. This speeds up modelling, to increase designers’ productivity. For example, the software can design fans and tunnel lining in its 3D model-based environment, simulate fires in complex tunnels, and help designers model solutions to manage risks

Because users do not need to manage different specialist applications to ensure that proposed tunnels are safe in fires, the platform enables tunnel specialists to investigate the effects of fire events in addition to their usual structural analysis.

The unified platform also ensures that results are robust. “Validation tests show that the platform’s results are highly consistent with those from real-scale tests,” says Protopsaltis. That means that it is a reliable alternative to real-world tests - both small and large scale - which should also reduce costs. Engineers can predict a fire’s progress quickly and accurately and rely on the system to determine damage to tunnels waiting to be renovated.

“The project makes an important contribution to improving safety in the transport sector,” says Protopsaltis.

Joining expertise

In part, the project’s success was due to its participation in Eurostars, says Protopsaltis. “The financial support makes it possible – and we could attract highly-qualified partner companies who are leaders in their domains.” FIDES DV-Partner GmbH focused on software development, Laabmayr Consulting GmbH contributed expert infrastructure and tunnelling knowledge, ELXIS Engineering Consultants S.a. specialises in tunnel ventilation systems and Tunnel Safety Testing S.a. validated results with real-scale fire and ventilation tests.

FIDES is now financing the final steps toward commercialisation. Customers such as engineering firms will be able to buy the whole platform as a package, individual modelling and processing tools or design consulting services that use these products. Sales revenue will finance further development of TUNFEC’s methods and platform.

The system could be adapted to other uses. Wind tunnel operators are interested in using it for wind tunnel measurement and computer simulation, while Austria is funding a follow-up project to develop a planning, training and decision-making system for disasters in buildings.