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Smart Paint Senses Structure Cracks

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

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Scottish scientists are developing a low-cost “smart” paint that can detect microscopic faults in wind turbines, mines and bridges before structural damage occurs.

The environmentally friendly paint uses nanotechnology to detect movement in large structures and could shape the future of safety monitoring, according to researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

 Dr. Mohamed Saafi, University of Strathclyde

 University of Strathclyde

The paint can be sprayed onto any surface and electrodes attached to detect structural damage long before failure occurs, says Dr. Mohamed Saafi.

The paint can be sprayed onto any surface, with electrodes attached to detect structural damage long before failure occurs.

‘Far-Reaching’ Safety Implications

“The development of this smart paint technology could have far-reaching implications for the way we monitor the safety of large structures all over the world,” said Dr. Mohamed Saafi, of the university's Department of Civil Engineering.

“There are no limitations as to where it could be used, and the low-cost nature gives it a significant advantage over the current options available in the industry. The process of producing and applying the paint also gives it an advantage, as no expertise is required and monitoring itself is straightforward.”

The paint is made with fly ash and highly aligned carbon nanotubes. When mixed, it has a cement-like property that allows it to stand up to harsh environments.

How it Works

The monitoring process “involves, in effect, a wireless sensor network,” said Saafi.

“The paint is interfaced with wireless communication nodes with power harvesting and warning capability, to remotely detect any unseen damage such as micro-cracks in a wind turbine concrete foundation.”

The paint could supplement visual inspections now used for wind turbine foundations, Saafi said.

“The developed paint with the wireless monitoring system would significantly reduce the maintenance costs and improve the safety of these large structures,” he said.

Saafi added: “Current technology is restricted to looking at specific areas of a structure at any given time; however, smart paint covers the whole structure, which is particularly useful to maximize the opportunity of preventing significant damage.”

Development and Testing

The research began as a PhD project by David McGahon, one of Saafi’s students.

The researchers say that early testing of a prototype material has “shown the paint to be highly effective.” Further testing in Glasgow is expected soon.

“We are able to carry out the end-to-end process at the University, and we are hoping that we can now demonstrate its effectiveness on a large structure,” said Saafi.

“The properties of the fly ash give the paint a durability that will allow it to be used in any environment, which will be a massive advantage in areas where the weather can make safety monitoring particularly difficult.”

‘Maintaining the Human Element’

Saafi does not suggest that the technology would replace human inspection. To the contrary.

Although a “significant development,” he says the paint “is one that has possibly been overlooked as a viable solution, because research tends to focus on high-tech options that look to eliminate human control.”

“Our research shows that by maintaining the human element, the costs can be vastly reduced without an impact on effectiveness.”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Nanotechnology; Protective coatings; Research; Smart coatings

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