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'Smart Skin' Could Show Structural Damage

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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Researchers at the University of Delaware are working on a material that could help make structural damage obvious to the eye, even when it would normally be invisible.

The team of engineers recently published a paper in the Journal of Nondestructive Evaluation, reporting their progress in developing a “smart skin” made of a carbon nanotube composite. With the composite skin, engineers could take before-and-after snapshots of a structure and analyze any differences that might indicate damage.

Modeling Conductivity

As the paper, “A Novel Methodology for Spatial Damage Detection and Imaging Using a Distributed Carbon Nanotube-Based Composite Sensor Combined with Electrical Impedance Tomography,” explains, the key to the substance’s function is a process called electrical impedance tomography.

University of Delaware engineers
Evan Krape/University of Delaware

Thomas Schumacher (left) and Erik Thostenson are two of the authors of a paper exploring the use of a carbon nanotube composite "smart skin" to measure a structure's health.

The skin would be used to make a two-dimensional model of a structure’s electrical conductivity before and after a potentially damaging event, like an earthquake. Changes in the pattern would indicate the presence of structural issues.

The composite is mechanically robust, as Engineering.com reported, and can adhere to virtually any shape or substrate, making it versatile in terms of potential applications, from buildings and other structures to roads and bridges.

Positive Results

Early results shows that, while there’s some tightening to do in the algorithm, the modeling showed structural issues well before infrared thermography was able to identify them.

It’s not the first time carbon nanotubes have entered the conversation when it comes to structural health, but the difference in the Delaware engineers’ project is that it uses two-dimensional modeling, rather than one-dimensional measurements.

“While the feasibility of employing carbon-nanotube-based composites as sensors has been validated, the typical approach is to use a series of one-dimensional measurements collected from a two-dimensional sensing area,” said Delaware’s Erik Thostenson, one of the paper’s co-authors. “The problem is that this confines the possible damage locations to the grid points of the measurements. EIT, on the other hand, is a true 2-D algorithm.”

Scaling Up

While the technology isn’t quite ready for the real world, the researchers are confident it’s well on its way.

“We are in the process of making improvements to the EIT algorithm to increase its accuracy,” co-author Thomas Schumacher said. “After that, we plan to demonstrate it in the laboratory, with an aim toward scaling it up for future monitoring of real structures.”

Other co-authors on the paper, which came out of the university’s Center for Composite Materials, were Hongbo Dai and Gerard J. Gallo.

   

Tagged categories: Colleges and Universities; Engineers; Research; Research and development

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