High-tech paint senses cracks in structures

Safer buildings, bridges and structures are a concept we can all get behind. A new paint being developed could go along way in providing a cheap and easy way to detect microscopic faults in structures.

What is so cool about this paint is that in addition to being an important safety measure, the creators have thought about sustainability — from the paint itself, how it reports the defects and the overall longevity of the surfaces it will cover.

How It Works

The paint is made from a combination of highly aligned carbon nanotubes that can carry electrical currents, and fly ash, a recycled by-product of coal combustion. Mixed together they become a highly durable, cement-like paint.

When the nanotubes bend, their electrical conductivity changes, indicating even unseen structural defects. These changes would be communicated via wireless communication nodes attached to the structure's surface so that action can be taken before defects can become life threatening.

Potentially saving lives makes the prototype paint worth it alone. When you add the fact that it extends the life of structures and saves costs you have yourself a winning combination.

The paint itself is partially made from a by-product of industry, and thanks to its heavy-duty construction it also serves as barrier from the elements helping preserve the structures it covers. Imagine the paint covering the famous Golden Gate Bridge which is constantly battered by the sea, wind and fog; the heavy duty paint could potentially cut down overall on heavy wear and tear on the bridge.

At a minimum the early reporting of structural damage allows engineers to address problems before major repairs or reconstruction would be needed.

Additionally, while the wireless communications nodes would require batteries to operate, the research team from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland believe they could harvest energy generated from some of the structures the paint covers to augment their reporting life. This could mean using wind energy from turbines, the vibration from trains in tunnels or solar panels on bridges and buildings to help the paint and the nodes to do their job.

Where It'll Do Some Good

"There are no limitations as to where it could be used, and the low-cost nature gives it a significant advantage over the current options available in the industry," Mohamed Saafi, chair of the university's department of civil engineering, said in a recent press release. "The process of producing and applying the paint also gives it an advantage, as no expertise is required and monitoring itself is straightforward."

"Current technology is restricted to looking at specific areas of a structure at any given time," Saafi said. "However, smart paint covers the whole structure, which is particularly useful to maximize the opportunity of preventing significant damage."

The research team has conducted promising tests including bending tests with strain sensors. Further tweaking involves understanding just how many of the carbon nanotubes are needed in the mix to be effective and keep the costs down. Testing will continue over the next few months.

This paint joins a variety of other paint-based solutions such as a prototype solar paint and the existing self-healing, scratch resistant paint found on cars. So I'm left with only two questions:

Could scientists combine the properties of these various paints into one special "super paint?' And of course, will it come in other color than industrial grey?

University of Strathclyde, via CNET

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