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Spinning smarter yarn

A news item from Science magazine this week reminded me of a conversation I had in Auckland last year. I was talking with a young engineer who was using strain gauges to listen for micro-cracks in composite stuctures. I wondered if her research might lead to instruments that could warn if an aircraft or race-boat had been weakened by excessive stress. She was worried about the size and cost of sensors. I found myself talking up possible applications. Sensors, I pointed out, are getting smaller, lighter, and cheaper. Like computer chips, some sensor technologies benefit from miniaturisation. Perhaps self-monitoring structures might be the new normal. Imagine an aircraft capable of telling its pilot: "If we do that again, my starboard wing will fall off."

Composite manufacturingA paper in Nano Letters reports a nanotech sensor that might do just that. Developed by a team at the University of Berkely, and the Lawrence Berkely Laboratory, the sensors are so tiny that millions of them can be spun into reinforcing fibres. These sensors flouresce in response to external light: The colour indicates the strain. Smart structures based on this type of sensor would have a photonic (not electronic) detection system.
I've been fortunate in the last few years to have worked with some of the Hutt Valley's high-tech composite manufacturers. Modern composite technology is central to so many coming technologies that I find it hard to imagine how any region could support a competitive industrial eco-system without at least one top-notch composite manufacturer. Composites are used in products as diverse as underground piping systems, superconducting devices, fishing rods, spacecraft, and of course, America's Cup hydrofoil sailboats. The industry in NZ has been closely associated with boat-building. We lost a few top composite manufacturers when the global financial crisis kicked the stuffing out of the boating market. But the good ones are still around, and they're still pushing the boundaries of what's possible.
I wonder who in the Hutt Valley will be the first to build a composite structure that talks.

 
 
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