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20th February 2018, Lowell, MA

Sensing fabrics to prevent failures in vital infrastructure

A UMass Lowell research team is working to create sensor-laden fabrics that monitor the structural health of buildings, roadways, bridges and more. © UMass LowellA team of UMass Lowell researchers has partnered with a research and development company to create new, cost-effective sensor-laden textiles that can be used to monitor the structural health and integrity of vital infrastructures across the country, including buildings and skyscrapers, roadways, bridges, tunnels, railway tracks, dams and pipelines.

UMass Lowell team leader Assoc. Prof Tzuyang Yu and Prof Pradeep Kurup of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with Prof Xingwei Wang of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are collaborating with researchers from Saint-Gobain, a multinational corporation with an R&D centre based in Northborough to develop fabrics integrated with optical fibres and sensors.

These sensing fabrics can be applied to existing structures to monitor strain or detect cracks in their early stages, thereby minimising maintenance costs, environmental impacts and disruptions to the people’s lives and businesses, according to the researchers.

Structural health monitoring

In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructures an overall grade of D+, indicating they urgently need major repairs and improvements to make them safe, sustainable and economically efficient. The new textiles aim to contribute toward that effort.

“Optical fibre sensors are very suitable for structural health monitoring due to their lightweight, low-cost, survivability in harsh environments and immunity to electromagnetic environments,” said Wang, a Shrewsbury resident. “More importantly, they can provide fully distributed sensing information about an object’s structural integrity. Combined with novel textile technology, the sensing fabrics will be relatively easy to install and maintain. They will be very useful for long-distance sensing applications.”

The project is supported by an US$ 853,000 grant from the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), which is part of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. AFFOA’s mission is to enable the manufacturing industry to transform traditional fibres, yarns and textiles into highly functional integrated and networked devices and systems. In addition, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts awarded the researchers a US$ 550,000 grant through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2).

State of disrepair

“The unique sensing capability of our proposed fabric will enable engineers to better predict the structural health of civil infrastructures and assist decision makers and stakeholders to better distribute limited resources for infrastructure repair, rehabilitation or rebuild,” said Prof Yu, who lives in Andover.

Corrosion, one of the issues causing deterioration of infrastructure, does US$ 13.6 billion in damage to highway bridges annually, according to the National Association of Corrosion Engineers. “The use of our proposed sensing textiles can help proactively assess the structural integrity of concrete and steel bridges,” said Prof Yu.

There are more than 470 tunnels located around the US and millions of miles of oil, gas and water pipes, according to Kurup, who said maintenance of all of these represents significant challenges for those responsible. For example, he said, the American Water Works Association estimates US$ 1 trillion will be needed over the next two decades to implement much-needed repairs and upgrades. The team’s sensing textile will allow engineers to detect damages early on, thereby preventing catastrophic failures, Kurup says.

Technically trained workforce

Yu says that the development of the sensing fabrics will also create new business with the manufacturing, installation and maintenance of the fabrics, as well as the processing and analysis of the sensor data.

“This research project combines two traditional industries – textiles and construction – to create innovative sensor and sensing system products for the aging infrastructure problem faced by all countries in the world,” said Prof Yu. “We envision that this Massachusetts-based R&D effort will expand the local economy by creating new products to address a critical need nationwide, as well as strengthen the technical edge of the US in today’s globally competitive market.” Scientists, engineers, interns and co-ops at Saint-Gobain will be trained in this emerging technology, the team said.

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