Recent research results have demonstrated that two-dimensional, on-demand mapping of the accumulated strain on metal structures will soon be a reality thanks to an engineered “smart skin” that’s only a fraction of the width of a human hair. By utilizing the unique properties of single-walled carbon nanotubes, a two-layer film airbrushed onto surfaces of bridges, pipelines, and airplanes, among others, can be scanned to reveal weaknesses in near real-time. As a bonus, the technology is barely visible even on a transparent surface, making it that much more flexible as an application.
Stress-inducing events, along with regular wear and tear, can deform structures and machines, affecting their safety and operability. Mechanical strain on structural surfaces provides information on the condition of the materials such as damage location and severity. Existing conventional sensors are only able to measure strain in one point along one axis, but with the smart skin technology, strain detection in any direction or location will be possible.
How “Smart Skin” Technology is Used
In 2002, researchers discovered that single-wall carbon nanotubes fluoresce, i.e., glow brightly when stimulated by a light source. Later, the fluorescence was further found to change color when stretched. This optical property was then considered in the context of metal structures that are subject to strain, specifically to apply the property as a diagnostic tool. To obtain the fluorescent data, researchers applied the smart skin to a testing surface, irradiated the area with a small laser scanner, and captured the resulting nanotube color emissions with an infrared spectrometer. Finally, two-dimensional maps of the accumulated strain were generated with the results.
The primary researchers, Professors Satish Nagarajaiah and Bruce Weisman of Rice University in Texas, have published two scientific papers explaining the methods used for achieving this technology and the results of its proof-of-principle application. As described in the papers, aluminum bars with holes or notches in areas of potential stress were tested with the laser technique to demonstrate the full potential of their invention. The points measured were located 1 millimeter apart, but the researchers stated that the points could be located 20 times closer for even more accurate readings. Standard strain sensors have points located several millimeters apart.
What Are Carbon Nanotubes?
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are carbon molecules that have been structurally modified into cylinders, or rather, rolled up sheets of carbon atoms. There has been some evidence suggesting that CNTs can be formed via natural processes such as volcanic events. However, to really capitalize on their unique characteristics, production in a laboratory environment is much more efficient.
Several methods can be used for production, but the most widely used method for synthesizing CNTs is chemical vapor deposition (CVD). This process combines a catalyzing metal with a carbon-containing gas which are heated to approximately 1400 degrees Fahrenheit, triggering the carbon molecules to assemble and grow into nanotubes. The resulting formation resembles a forest or lawn grass, each trunk or blade averaging .43 nanometers in diameter. The length is dependent on variables such as the amount of time spent in the high heat environment.
Besides surface analysis, carbon nanotubes have proven invaluable in many research and commercial arenas, their luminescence being only one of many properties that can improve and enable other technologies. Their mechanical tensile strength is 400 times that of steel while only having one sixth the density, making them very lightweight. CNTs also have highly conductive electrical and thermal properties, are extremely resistant to corrosion, and can be filled with other nanomaterials. All of these advantages open up their applications to include solar cells, sensors, drug delivery, electronic devices and shielding, lithium-ion batteries, body armor, and perhaps even a space elevator, assuming significant advances overcome its hurdles.
The nanotube-laced smart skin is ready for scaling up into real-world applications, but its chosen industry may take time to adopt given the general resistance to change in a field with long-standing existing technology. While awaiting embrace in the arena it was primarily designed for, the smart skin has other potential uses in engineering research applications. Bruce Weisman, also the discoverer of CNT fluorescence, anticipates its advantages being used for testing the design of small-scaled structures and engines prior to deployment. Niche applications like these may be the primary entry point into the market for some time to come. In the meantime, the researchers plan to continue developing their strain reader to capture simultaneous readings from large surfaces.