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Self-Powered Sensors that Communicate Could Warn Of Bridge, Building Defects

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Posted March 19, 2015

Imagine a bridge or a dam that could sense a structural defect before it happens, diagnose what the problem will be and alert the authorities before something bad happens.

Rigoberto Burgueno and Subir Biswas, MSU engineering professors, and Shantanu Chakrabartty, a professor at Washington University at St. Louis, are developing self-powered sensors that can detect structural defects in buildings and bridges before they occur. The tiny microchips will use sensor-network technology to detect and diagnose potential problems. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.

Rigoberto Burgueno and Subir Biswas, MSU engineering professors, and Shantanu Chakrabartty, a professor at Washington University at St. Louis, are developing self-powered sensors that can detect structural defects in buildings and bridges before they occur. The tiny microchips will use sensor-network technology to detect and diagnose potential problems. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.

Three Michigan State University College of Engineering researchers are developing a new technology known as substrate computing. This will allow sensing, communication and diagnostic computing, all within the substrate – the building material – of a structure, using energy harvested from the structure itself.

Subir Biswas, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the goal is to install sensors that continuously monitor and report on the structure’s integrity, using new sensor-network technology.

“Adoption of such monitoring has previously been limited because of the frequency of battery replacement for battery-powered sensors,” he said, “as well as the need for a separate communication subsystem usually involving radio frequency sensor networks.”

MSU researchers are developing a new technology known as substrate computing. It involves the embedding of microchips into building materials that can help detect structural defects before they cause problems. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.

MSU researchers are developing a new technology known as substrate computing. It involves the embedding of microchips into building materials that can help detect structural defects before they cause problems. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.

A research team of Biswas; Rigoberto Burgueno, professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of computer science and engineering from Washington University at St. Louis, are developing this new technology.

“Our research is in the area of smart modular substrates with embedded sensing, communication and computing, that use advancements in mechanical energy harvesting and ultrasound communications to make it a reality,” Biswas said.

In the future, this technology will be routinely used in building materials, so that structures such as bridges and buildings will be able to detect and diagnose potential problems without the need for an external energy source and a separate wireless sensor network. The goal is to integrate all these functions within a tiny 3 millimeters-by-3 millimeters electronic chip, which can be embedded within the material of a structure.

“These electronic chips, with MSU-patented technology, will be capable of detecting the nature of a fault, send the fault information through the structure material itself and compute the fault pattern across the entire structure,” Biswas said.

The technology is expected to be commercially available in five years.

Source: MSU

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