Smart skin senses potential problems before structures collapse

Fri, 2014-06-27 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

A new sensing skin is showing promise in finding flaws in concrete structures before they result in catastrophic failure.

The skin was developed by researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Eastern Finland who say it could eventually serve as an early warning system for buildings and bridges.

When concrete fails, the consequences can be severe. Last year, a concrete building largely used as a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,129 – the deadliest accidental building failure in history. And problems can literally appear overnight. A 15-story condominium complex in Sarasota, Fla., had to be evacuated suddenly when cracks started to appear. For 36 years that building appeared to be fine.

Identifies problems instantly and automatically

The smart skin combines electrodes with paint that conducts a small amount of electricity. A change in conductivity is an indication of a possible failure. The electronic monitoring allows for immediate notification of problems as they develop instead of relying on someone to happen upon and notice them.

“The idea is to identify problems quickly so that they can be addressed before they become big problems and – in the case of some critical infrastructure – so that public safety measures can be implemented,” said Dr. Mohammad Pour-Ghaz, an assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

Could have wide-ranging use

The smart skin has been tested already on concrete beams and will now be the subject of larger-scale tests.

Eventually, researchers hope the smart skin can improve the safety of everything from nuclear waste storage facilities and bridges to new and existing concrete construction.

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