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New sensor to measure structural strain can repair itself when broken

June 16, 2011 - Washington

Researchers from North Carolina State University have made an important advancement to help us make informed decisions about structural safety in the wake of earthquakes, explosions or other unexpected events.

They have designed a sensor that can measure the strain, or forces, exerted on materials used to build everything from airplanes to civil infrastructure.

For example, these sensors can tell us how an airplane wing is performing in flight, and give maintenance authorities advance notice when the wing may be near failure.

Historically, one flaw in such sensors is that they can break under stress. That means the sensor can no longer provide information to users, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the material they were monitoring has been irreparably harmed. And, as in the airplane example, the sensors may be inaccessible - making them difficult or impossible to replace.

"To address this problem, we've developed a sensor that automatically repairs itself, in the event that it is broken," said Dr. Kara Peters, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research.

The sensor can stretch and compress along with the material it monitors. An infrared (IR) light wave runs through the sensor and detects these changes in length, which tells how much strain the material is undergoing.

The study has been published in the journal of Smart Materials And Structures.


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