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AbstractIs an I-beam as strong as a solid beam of the same size? What if you include weight in the comparison: which beam has the greater strength-to-weight ratio? Would an I-beam be stronger than a solid rectangular beam of the same weight? What about other structural shapes (e.g., T-beams, U-beams)? In this project you can find out by setting up a test stand, putting on your safety goggles and measuring how much stress these building components can handle before they snap.
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Last edit date: 2017-07-28
- How do you choose which material to use for a particular purpose?
- How do you know that manufactured materials meet the advertised specifications?
- How do you know that the finished products have been fabricated properly?
- How long will the finished product last?
- For research and development of new materials, how do you measure progress?
Terms and ConceptsTo do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
- strength-to-weight ratio.
- What is the difference between compressive stress and tensile stress?
- When you hang a weight from the center of a beam which is supported at both ends, what stress(es) do you induce on the beam, and where?
- Which cross-sectional shape do you expect to be strongest? Weakest?
- Which cross-sectional shape do you expect to have the best strength-to-weight ratio?
- A good place to start is this Science Buddies resource written by Stanford Mechanical Engineering Professor Beth Pruitt and her students:
Stress, Strain and Strength.
- This PBS website has great information on structural engineering, including online labs where you can learn about forces, materials, loads and structural shapes:
WGBH, 2001. "Building Big: Bridges, Domes, Skyscrapers, Dams and Tunnels," PBS Online [accessed February 17, 2004] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/buildingbig/index.html.
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Materials and Equipment
- Safety glasses; available at hardware stores or from online suppliers such as Carolina Biological Supply Company
- At least 15 15-inch lengths of polystyrene (or ABS) plastic structural beams:
- 3 samples each of 5 different cross-sectional shapes
- Plastic beams are sold under the brand name "Plastruct"
- A web search for Plastruct will turn up the company site, where you can find a list of local retailers
- You can also locate many online suppliers
- Sturdy "S" hook (for hanging weight bucket)
- 5 gal plastic bucket
- Weights (water, sand, bricks)
- Postal scale (for weighing beams)
- Bathroom scale
- Test stand, consists of:
- Two supports at equal height, with a gap (about 12 in) between them
- 2 "C" clamps (one for each end of the beam); available from hardware stores or online suppliers such as Carolina Biological Supply Company
Disclaimer: Science Buddies occasionally provides information (such as part numbers, supplier names, and supplier weblinks) to assist our users in locating specialty items for individual projects. The information is provided solely as a convenience to our users. We do our best to make sure that part numbers and descriptions are accurate when first listed. However, since part numbers do change as items are obsoleted or improved, please send us an email if you run across any parts that are no longer available. We also do our best to make sure that any listed supplier provides prompt, courteous service. Science Buddies does participate in affiliate programs with Home Science Tools, Amazon.com, Carolina Biological, and Jameco Electronics. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501(c)(3) public charity. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science fair projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember Your Display Board Supplies
Poster Making Kit
ArtSkills Trifold with Header
- Safety note: Wear safety glasses when testing beam capacity. Keep hands and feet clear of the area underneath the weight bucket, which may fall at any time.
- Do your background research and make sure that you understand the terms and concept and can answer the questions above.
- Set up your test stand for supporting the plastic beams. You will want a gap of about one foot, and you will need to clamp each end of the beam firmly in place with a "C" clamp across this gap. You could use a space between two workbenches, or you could build a sturdy frame with pieces of 2×4 and cross-bracing. Your test stand will need to be tall enough to hang a 5-gallon bucket from the beam, plus about 25–30 cm.
- For hanging weight from the beams, get a sturdy S-hook from the hardware store, and hang a 5 gallon plastic bucket from it by the handle.
- For weight, try water (up to 18 kg/bucket), sand (up to 29 kg/bucket for dry sand, 35 kg/bucket for wet sand), or iron weights from a weight-lifting set (somewhere in the range of 70–140 kg/bucket, depending on air space).
- Weigh each beam before testing.
- Clamp each end of the beam down firmly with "C" clamps.
- Test at least 5 different beam shapes.
- Test at least 3 beams of each shape (5 or more is better).
- Add weight bucket (in small, measured increments) until the beam breaks. Weigh the bucket on the bathroom scale to see how much weight was required to break the beam. Record the amount of weight needed to break each beam.
- Watch carefully and record any observations in your lab notebook. Does breakage consistently start in a particular location on all of the beams of a particular type?
- Calculate the strength/weight ratio for each beam, and the average for each cross-sectional shape of beam.
- Graph your results.
- From your observations and measurements, is polystyrene ductile or brittle?
- From your observations of each beam failure, do the various beam shapes perform better, worse or about the same under compression vs. tension?
Communicating Your Results: Start Planning Your Display BoardCreate an award-winning display board with tips and design ideas from the experts at ArtSkills.
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
Civil EngineersIf you turned on a faucet, used a bathroom, or visited a public space (like a road, a building, or a bridge) today, then you've used or visited a project that civil engineers helped to design and build. Civil engineers work to improve travel and commerce, provide people with safe drinking water and sanitation, and protect communities from earthquakes and floods. This important and ancient work is combined with a desire to make structures that are as beautiful and environmentally sound, as they are functional and cost-effective. Read more
Industrial Health & Safety EngineerThink of all the jobs in the world that involve machinery, chemicals, toxins, radiation, loud noise, or travel to places above or below Earth's surface—all of these jobs carry an element of risk to the workers. Industrial health and safety engineers work to minimize this risk. They inspect work sites and help workers and companies understand and comply with safety laws. They use their knowledge of mechanical processes, chemistry, and human psychology and performance to anticipate hazardous conditions. Protecting workers requires excellent communication skills and a strong sense of responsibility. Read more
Civil Engineering TechnicianDo you dream of building big? Civil engineering technicians help build some of the largest structures in the world—from buildings, bridges, and dams to highways, airfields, and wastewater treatment facilities. Many of these construction projects are "public works," meaning they strengthen and benefit a community, state, or the nation. Read more
Materials Scientist and EngineerWhat makes it possible to create high-technology objects like computers and sports gear? It's the materials inside those products. Materials scientists and engineers develop materials, like metals, ceramics, polymers, and composites, that other engineers need for their designs. Materials scientists and engineers think atomically (meaning they understand things at the nanoscale level), but they design microscopically (at the level of a microscope), and their materials are used macroscopically (at the level the eye can see). From heat shields in space, prosthetic limbs, semiconductors, and sunscreens to snowboards, race cars, hard drives, and baking dishes, materials scientists and engineers make the materials that make life better. Read more
- For a more basic project, see: Strength in Numbers?.
- Orientation of the beam. For beams with asymmetric cross-sections, does the orientation of the beam affect its weight-bearing capacity?
- Hobby shops also sell similar structural parts made of other materials, including wood (various types), ABS plastic, brass and aluminum. Select structural parts with similar dimensions and cross-sections, but made of different materials. Test them with similar methods. Compare the strengths (and weaknesses) of the various materials.
- Measure the vertical deflection of each beam as you add more weight. Remove the weight and see if the material recovers its original shape (elastic deformation) or remains permanently deformed (plastic deformation). Use the additional information to create a stress-strain plot for each type of beam.
- Devise a method for applying and measuring a torque stress to a beam. Test different beam types for resistance to this type of stress.
Ask an ExpertThe Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.
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