Nano-infused Paint Detects Strain in Planes and Bridges

By Chelsea Whyte on June 22, 2012 8:11 PM EDT

bridge
Nano-infused paint could make bridge, planes and buildings safer by detecting deformations before we can see them with the naked eye. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A new form of "smart paint" infused with carbon nanotubes can help detect strain in buildings, bridges, or even planes.

Researchers from Rice University have created a mixture they call "strain paint" which can be read with a laser beam that detects the positions of nanotubes within the compound, and can relay information about deformations in a surface.

Stress tests, or strain measurements, are often done on buildings, bridges and airplanes, but the current methods can be limiting. A plane must be on the ground and a technician has to be able to physically attach a gauge in one of a few specific points where the device can be wired.  

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Letting paint tell technicians where strain is happening could send a signal of stress well before the effects of deformation become visible to the naked eye, researchers said.

"What we want to do is sort of build these into the structure itself, so that you start doing monitoring on a more regular basis, not necessarily on a yearly or an annual basis, which is what typically occurs now," said researcher Satish Nagarajaiah.

He said the strain paint could also be customized with multifunctional properties for specific applications - as a protective film to prevent corrosion of the underlying material, for example, reports GizMag. It is also clear, meaning it won't affect the appearance of the material.

The paint makes good use of the properties of carbon nanotubes, which show large, predictable fluorescent wavelength shifts when they are deformed by tension or compression. These tubes, which are about 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, would experience the same tension as any surface they're painted on, giving a clear picture of any abnormalities.

Chemistry professor Bruce Weisman said the project will require further development of the coating before such a product can go to market, according to Futurity.org.

"We'll need to optimize details of its composition and preparation, and find the best way to apply it to the surfaces that will be monitored," he said. "These fabrication/engineering issues should be addressed to ensure proper performance, even before we start working on portable read-out instruments."

Weisman is confident the kinks can be ironed out.

"There are already quite compact infrared spectrometers that could be battery-operated," he said. "Miniature lasers and optics are also readily available. So it wouldn't require the invention of new technologies, just combining components that already exist."

"I'm confident that if there were a market, the readout equipment could be miniaturized and packaged. It's not science fiction."

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