Tag Archives: University of Strathclyde

Congratulate China on the world’s first quantum communication network

China has some exciting news about the world’s first quantum network; it’s due to open in late August 2017 so you may want to have your congratulations in order for later this month.

An Aug. 4, 2017 news item on phys.org makes the announcement,

As malicious hackers find ever more sophisticated ways to launch attacks, China is about to launch the Jinan Project, the world’s first unhackable computer network, and a major milestone in the development of quantum technology.

Named after the eastern Chinese city where the technology was developed, the network is planned to be fully operational by the end of August 2017. Jinan is the hub of the Beijing-Shanghai quantum network due to its strategic location between the two principal Chinese metropolises.

“We plan to use the network for national defence, finance and other fields, and hope to spread it out as a pilot that if successful can be used across China and the whole world,” commented Zhou Fei, assistant director of the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology, who was speaking to Britain’s Financial Times.

An Aug. 3, 2017 CORDIS (Community Research and Development Research Information Service [for the European Commission]) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the technology,

By launching the network, China will become the first country worldwide to implement quantum technology for a real life, commercial end. It also highlights that China is a key global player in the rush to develop technologies based on quantum principles, with the EU and the United States also vying for world leadership in the field.

The network, known as a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) network, is more secure than widely used electronic communication equivalents. Unlike a conventional telephone or internet cable, which can be tapped without the sender or recipient being aware, a QKD network alerts both users to any tampering with the system as soon as it occurs. This is because tampering immediately alters the information being relayed, with the disturbance being instantly recognisable. Once fully implemented, it will make it almost impossible for other governments to listen in on Chinese communications.

In the Jinan network, some 200 users from China’s military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be able to send messages safe in the knowledge that only they are reading them. It will be the world’s longest land-based quantum communications network, stretching over 2 000 km.

Also speaking to the ‘Financial Times’, quantum physicist Tim Byrnes, based at New York University’s (NYU) Shanghai campus commented: ‘China has achieved staggering things with quantum research… It’s amazing how quickly China has gotten on with quantum research projects that would be too expensive to do elsewhere… quantum communication has been taken up by the commercial sector much more in China compared to other countries, which means it is likely to pull ahead of Europe and US in the field of quantum communication.’

However, Europe is also determined to also be at the forefront of the ‘quantum revolution’ which promises to be one of the major defining technological phenomena of the twenty-first century. The EU has invested EUR 550 million into quantum technologies and has provided policy support to researchers through the 2016 Quantum Manifesto.

Moreover, with China’s latest achievement (and a previous one already notched up from July 2017 when its quantum satellite – the world’s first – sent a message to Earth on a quantum communication channel), it looks like the race to be crowned the world’s foremost quantum power is well and truly underway…

Prior to this latest announcement, Chinese scientists had published work about quantum satellite communications, a development that makes their imminent terrestrial quantum network possible. Gabriel Popkin wrote about the quantum satellite in a June 15, 2017 article Science magazine,

Quantum entanglement—physics at its strangest—has moved out of this world and into space. In a study that shows China’s growing mastery of both the quantum world and space science, a team of physicists reports that it sent eerily intertwined quantum particles from a satellite to ground stations separated by 1200 kilometers, smashing the previous world record. The result is a stepping stone to ultrasecure communication networks and, eventually, a space-based quantum internet.

“It’s a huge, major achievement,” says Thomas Jennewein, a physicist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “They started with this bold idea and managed to do it.”

Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrödinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.

Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”

Starting in the 1970s, however, physicists began testing the effect over increasing distances. In 2015, the most sophisticated of these tests, which involved measuring entangled electrons 1.3 kilometers apart, showed once again that spooky action is real.

Beyond the fundamental result, such experiments also point to the possibility of hack-proof communications. Long strings of entangled photons, shared between distant locations, can be “quantum keys” that secure communications. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on a quantum-encrypted message would disrupt the shared key, alerting everyone to a compromised channel.

But entangled photons degrade rapidly as they pass through the air or optical fibers. So far, the farthest anyone has sent a quantum key is a few hundred kilometers. “Quantum repeaters” that rebroadcast quantum information could extend a network’s reach, but they aren’t yet mature. Many physicists have dreamed instead of using satellites to send quantum information through the near-vacuum of space. “Once you have satellites distributing your quantum signals throughout the globe, you’ve done it,” says Verónica Fernández Mármol, a physicist at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. …

Popkin goes on to detail the process for making the discovery in easily accessible (for the most part) writing and in a video and a graphic.

Russell Brandom writing for The Verge in a June 15, 2017 article about the Chinese quantum satellite adds detail about previous work and teams in other countries also working on the challenge (Note: Links have been removed),

Quantum networking has already shown promise in terrestrial fiber networks, where specialized routing equipment can perform the same trick over conventional fiber-optic cable. The first such network was a DARPA-funded connection established in 2003 between Harvard, Boston University, and a private lab. In the years since, a number of companies have tried to build more ambitious connections. The Swiss company ID Quantique has mapped out a quantum network that would connect many of North America’s largest data centers; in China, a separate team is working on a 2,000-kilometer quantum link between Beijing and Shanghai, which would rely on fiber to span an even greater distance than the satellite link. Still, the nature of fiber places strict limits on how far a single photon can travel.

According to ID Quantique, a reliable satellite link could connect the existing fiber networks into a single globe-spanning quantum network. “This proves the feasibility of quantum communications from space,” ID Quantique CEO Gregoire Ribordy tells The Verge. “The vision is that you have regional quantum key distribution networks over fiber, which can connect to each other through the satellite link.”

China isn’t the only country working on bringing quantum networks to space. A collaboration between the UK’s University of Strathclyde and the National University of Singapore is hoping to produce the same entanglement in cheap, readymade satellites called Cubesats. A Canadian team is also developing a method of producing entangled photons on the ground before sending them into space.

I wonder if there’s going to be an invitational event for scientists around the world to celebrate the launch.

Sniffing for art conservation

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has produced a video titled, “How that ‘old book smell’ could save priceless artifacts” according to their Sept. 6, 2016 news release on EurekAlert,

Odor-detecting devices like Breathalyzers have been used for years to determine blood-alcohol levels in drunk drivers. Now, researchers are using a similar method to sniff out the rate of decay in historic art and artifacts. By tracking the chemicals in “old book smell” and similar odors, conservators can react quickly to preserve priceless art and artifacts at the first signs of decay. In this Speaking of Chemistry, Sarah Everts explains how cultural-heritage science uses the chemistry of odors to save books, vintage jewelry and even early Legos. …

Here’s the video,

Heritage Smells, the UK project mentioned in the video, is now completed but it was hosted by the University of Strathclyde and more project information can be found here.

Testing technology for a global quantum network

This work on quantum networks comes from a joint Singapore/UK research project, from a June 2, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

You can’t sign up for the quantum internet just yet, but researchers have reported a major experimental milestone towards building a global quantum network — and it’s happening in space.

With a network that carries information in the quantum properties of single particles, you can create secure keys for secret messaging and potentially connect powerful quantum computers in the future. But scientists think you will need equipment in space to get global reach.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the University of Strathclyde, UK, have become the first to test in orbit technology for satellite-based quantum network nodes.

They have put a compact device carrying components used in quantum communication and computing into orbit. And it works: the team report first data in a paper published 31 May 2016 in the journal Physical Review Applied.

A June 2, 2016 National University of Singapore press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The team’s device, dubbed SPEQS, creates and measures pairs of light particles, called photons. Results from space show that SPEQS is making pairs of photons with correlated properties – an indicator of performance.

Team-leader Alexander Ling, an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at NUS said, “This is the first time anyone has tested this kind of quantum technology in space.”

The team had to be inventive to redesign a delicate, table-top quantum setup to be small and robust enough to fly inside a nanosatellite only the size of a shoebox. The whole satellite weighs just 1.65-kilogramme.

Towards entanglement

Making correlated photons is a precursor to creating entangled photons. Described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”, entanglement is a connection between quantum particles that lends security to communication and power to computing.

Professor Artur Ekert, Director of CQT, invented the idea of using entangled particles for cryptography. He said, “Alex and his team are taking entanglement, literally, to a new level. Their experiments will pave the road to secure quantum communication and distributed quantum computation on a global scale. I am happy to see that Singapore is one of the world leaders in this area.”

Local quantum networks already exist [emphasis mine]. The problem Ling’s team aims to solve is a distance limit. Losses limit quantum signals sent through air at ground level or optical fibre to a few hundred kilometers – but we might ultimately use entangled photons beamed from satellites to connect points on opposite sides of the planet. Although photons from satellites still have to travel through the atmosphere, going top-to-bottom is roughly equivalent to going only 10 kilometres at ground level.

The group’s first device is a technology pathfinder. It takes photons from a BluRay laser and splits them into two, then measures the pair’s properties, all on board the satellite. To do this it contains a laser diode, crystals, mirrors and photon detectors carefully aligned inside an aluminum block. This sits on top of a 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres printed circuit board packed with control electronics.

Through a series of pre-launch tests – and one unfortunate incident – the team became more confident that their design could survive a rocket launch and space conditions. The team had a device in the October 2014 Orbital-3 rocket which exploded on the launch pad. The satellite containing that first device was later found on a beach intact and still in working order.

Future plans

Even with the success of the more recent mission, a global network is still a few milestones away. The team’s roadmap calls for a series of launches, with the next space-bound SPEQS slated to produce entangled photons. SPEQS stands for Small Photon-Entangling Quantum System.

With later satellites, the researchers will try sending entangled photons to Earth and to other satellites. The team are working with standard “CubeSat” nanosatellites, which can get relatively cheap rides into space as rocket ballast. Ultimately, completing a global network would mean having a fleet of satellites in orbit and an array of ground stations.

In the meantime, quantum satellites could also carry out fundamental experiments – for example, testing entanglement over distances bigger than Earth-bound scientists can manage. “We are reaching the limits of how precisely we can test quantum theory on Earth,” said co-author Dr Daniel Oi at the University of Strathclyde.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Generation and Analysis of Correlated Pairs of Photons aboard a Nanosatellite by Zhongkan Tang, Rakhitha Chandrasekara, Yue Chuan Tan, Cliff Cheng, Luo Sha, Goh Cher Hiang, Daniel K. L. Oi, and Alexander Ling. Phys. Rev. Applied 5, 054022 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevApplied.5.054022 Published 31 May 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Music on the web, a spider’s web, that is

I was expecting to see Markus Buehler and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) mentioned in this latest work on spiderwebs and music. Surprise! This latest research is from three universities in the UK as per a June 3, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies so that, when plucked like a guitar string, its sound carries information about prey, mates, and even the structural integrity of a web.

The discovery was made by researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Strathclyde, and Sheffield who fired bullets and lasers at spider silk to study how it vibrates. They found that, uniquely, when compared to other materials, spider silk can be tuned to a wide range of harmonics. The findings, to be reported in the journal Advanced Materials, not only reveal more about spiders but could also inspire a wide range of new technologies, such as tiny light-weight sensors.

A June 3, 2014 University of Oxford news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the research and describes how it was conducted (firing bullets?),

‘Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information,’ said Beth Mortimer of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University, who led the research. ‘The sound of silk can tell them what type of meal is entangled in their net and about the intentions and quality of a prospective mate. By plucking the silk like a guitar string and listening to the ‘echoes’ the spider can also assess the condition of its web.’

‘Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information,’ said Beth Mortimer of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University, who led the research. ‘The sound of silk can tell them what type of meal is entangled in their net and about the intentions and quality of a prospective mate. By plucking the silk like a guitar string and listening to the ‘echoes’ the spider can also assess the condition of its web.’

This quality is used by the spider in its web by ‘tuning’ the silk: controlling and adjusting both the inherent properties of the silk, and the tensions and interconnectivities of the silk threads that make up the web. To study the sonic properties of the spider’s gossamer threads the researchers used ultra-high-speed cameras to film the threads as they responded to the impact of bullets. [emphasis mine] In addition, lasers were used to make detailed measurements of even the smallest vibration.

‘The fact that spiders can receive these nanometre vibrations with organs on each of their legs, called slit sensillae, really exemplifies the impact of our research about silk properties found in our study,’ said Dr Shira Gordon of the University of Strathclyde, an author involved in this research.

‘These findings further demonstrate the outstanding properties of many spider silks that are able to combine exceptional toughness with the ability to transfer delicate information,’ said Professor Fritz Vollrath of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University, an author of the paper. ‘These are traits that would be very useful in light-weight engineering and might lead to novel, built-in ‘intelligent’ sensors and actuators.’

Dr Chris Holland of the University of Sheffield, an author of the paper, said: ‘Spider silks are well known for their impressive mechanical properties, but the vibrational properties have been relatively overlooked and now we find that they are also an awesome communication tool. Yet again spiders continue to impress us in more ways than we can imagine.’

Beth Mortimer said: ‘It may even be that spiders set out to make a web that ‘sounds right’ as its sonic properties are intimately related to factors such as strength and flexibility.’

The research paper has not yet been published in Advanced Materials (I checked this morning, June 4, 2014).

However, there is this video from the researchers,

As for Markus Buehler’s work at MIT, you can find out more in my Nov. 28, 2012 posting, Producing stronger silk musically.

NanoCelluComp; a European Commission-funded nanocellulose project

It was a bit of a surprise to find out there’s yet another nanocellulose fibre project but here it is in a Mar. 7, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

The overall aim of the NanoCelluComp project is to develop a technology to utilise the high mechanical performance of cellulose nanofibres, obtained from food processing waste streams, combined with bioderived matrix materials, for the manufacture of 100% bio-derived high performance composite materials that will replace randomly oriented and unidirectional glass and carbon fibre reinforced plastics in a range of applications including transportation, wind turbines, biomedical, sport and consumer goods. More specifically, the project aims to develop a manufacturing process to form a 100% bio-composites with controlled alignment of the native modified cellulose nanofibres and evaluate these process with regard to the physical and mechanical performance of produced materials and suitability for use by industry via existing composite processing technologies. The project will also study the sustainability of the process and materials (nanocellulose bio-composites) in terms of environmental impacts and cost compared to existing materials, namely, carbon fibre reinforced plastics and glass fibre reinforced plastics.

It’s a project funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme whose funding runs out in Feb. 2014. Their fourth newsletter (PDF) is available for viewing. The most interesting bit of news in the publication (for me) is the announcement of a fifth meeting. From the 4th newsletter,

The consortium will next meet on the 14th and 15th of March at the facilities of KTH in Stockholm for its fifth meeting. The Project Technical Adviser, Prof Maria Tomoaia-Cotisel will also be in attendance. (p. 1)

The NanoCelluComp consortium is an amalgam of academic, government, and business agencies, from the NanoCelluComp website’s Consortium page,

Institute of Nanotechnology

The Institute of Nanotechnology (IoN) is one of the global leaders in providing nanotechnology information. It supplies industry and governments with intelligence on nanotechnology and its applications and has produced several important milestone publications. …

CelluComp

CelluComp is a composite materials technology company founded in 2004 by two expert materials scientists, Dr David Hepworth and Dr Eric Whale. …

University of Strathclyde

The University of Strathclyde (USTRATH) will be represented by the research group of Dr Simon Shilton. Dr Shilton’s group at Strathclyde has pioneered the use of rheological factors in hollow fibre membrane spinning. …

University of Copenhagen

The University of Copenhagen team (UCPH) comprises of research groups from the Department of Plant Biology and Biotechnology, the Department of Agriculture and Ecology and the Department of Food science at the Faculty of Life Sciences representing the complete repertoire of expertise and analytical methods required for the project. Prof. Peter Ulvskov will lead the team. …

Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden)

The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) team is represented in the project by the cellulose-based nanomaterials group of the Division of Glycoscience led by Prof. Qi Zhou. The current research program of the group is centred on the construction of self-assembled composite materials with multi-functionalities and well-defined architectures using cellulose nanofibers, native and modified carbohydrate polymers.  …

University of Reading

The University of Reading team (UREAD) is represented by researchers from the department of Chemistry led by Dr Fred Davis. …

SweTree Technologies

SweTree Technologies (STT) is a plant and forest biotechnology company providing products and technologies to improve the productivity and performance properties of plants, wood and fibre for forestry, pulp & paper, packaging, hygiene, textile and other fibre related industries. …

AL.P.A.S. S.r.l.

AL.P.A.S. S.r.l. (ALPAS) is a manufacturer of Epoxy Resin, Polyurethane, PVC and other adhesive systems based in Northern Italy. The company has over 30 years experience in supplying these products to the Automotive, Electric/Electronics, Marble, Building and other industries. …

Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA)

Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) is a materials science and technology research institution. …

Novozymes

Novozymes (NZ) is a world leader in bioinnovation and the world’s largest producer of industrial enzymes, with a market share of approximately 45%. …

Biovelop

Biovelop (BV) is an innovative Life Science company with production facilites in Kimstad, Sweden. The company specializes in the development and scaling up of cornerstone technologies in the area of extraction of functional ingredients from cereal grains and brans. …

I wish there was a bit more information in the fourth newsletter about what has been accomplished, from  the newsletter,

Work packages 1 and 2 are now completed (with feasibility studies on alternative vegetable waste streams performed, and methods for liberating and stabilizing nanocellulose achieved).

Work package 3 will conclude shortly with a better understanding of how to improve the mechanical properties of the liberated nanocelulose.

Activities in work package 4 are also nearing completion, with novel production processes achieved and resultant fibres now being tested.

Work package 5 activities to integrate all project research results have been slightly delayed, however initial test composites have been made. Following successful testing of these, the process will be scaled up to industrially relevant amounts.

Work package 6 has produced a report describing environment, health and safety (EHS) aspects and initial findings on end- user acceptability criteria for the developed composites. (p. 3)

Perhaps there’ll be something more in their mid-term report, assuming it gets published.

CeNSE (Central Nervous System of the Earth) and billions of tiny sensors from HP plus a memristor update

Mike Thacker’s Feb. 1, 2013 (?) post features an HP Labs video trumpeting what is described as their most progressive work, from the official HP Labs blog,

… HP Labs in Palo Alto, for example, which is using nanotechnology capabilities to create low-cost censors that act as a central nervous system for the earth. The technology can be used to closely monitor — and quickly respond to — changes in agriculture, food supply and architectural infrastructure around the world.

CeNSE (Central Nervous System of the Earth) sounds like something new, eh? Almost three years ago, Greg Lindsay wrote about CeNSE and its first customer, Shell Oil, in a Feb. 12, 2010 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Just days after Cisco signaled it will horn into IBM’s turf by rewiring an aging city in Massachusetts, Hewlett Packard announced this morning the first commercial application of its own holistic blueprint–the torturously acronymed “CeNSE” (short for Central Nervous System for the Earth). Much like IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign, HP proposes sticking billions of sensors on everything in sight and boiling down the resulting flood of data into insights for making the world a better, greener place. But what sets HP apart from its rivals is its determination to create a smarter planet almost entirely within house, from sensors of its own design and manufacture to servers to software to the consultants who will tie it all together. And its first customer could not be less green: Shell Oil.

The Shell deal also unintentionally explodes the myth that a smarter planet is necessarily a greener one. HP’s bleeding-edge accelerometers are being deployed for the least green thing you can think of: sucking every last drop of oil out of the ground. While absolutely necessary for the current trajectory of our way of life (and buying us more time to develop alternatives), it’s hard to argue that technology for more efficiently recovering fossil fuels is in any way sustainable. (Although Wacker [Jeff Wacker, the leader of services innovation at HP and the head of its efforts to commercialize CeNSE] gamely argues the same technology is needed for finding empty pockets suitable for carbon sequestration.) While corporate-sponsored smarter cities can, in fact, be greener ones, their charter is the same as it ever was: profit. [emphasis mine]

Lindsay’s article echoes some of what I noted in the context of the Carbon Management Canada (CMC) network (government- and industry-funded) in my Feb. 4, 2013 posting about ultra-sensitive nanosensors and attempts to reduce carbon emissions in the Alberta oil sands. While the industry may work to reduce emissions, its raison d’être is profit and that can lead to complex situations with conflicting agendas.

As for what these billions and billions of tiny sensors might do for us, it seems there might be alternatives to at least one of the capabilities claimed by HP Labs and its sensors, ‘sensing changes in architectural infrastructures’. My Jan. 3, 2013 post, Signal danger with smart paint, mentioned a much more modest effort,

An innovative low-cost smart paint that can detect microscopic faults in wind turbines, mines and bridges before structural damage occurs is being developed by researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. [emphasis mine]

The environmentally-friendly paint uses nanotechnology to detect movement in large structures, and could shape the future of safety monitoring.

I digress slightly. The reference to the ‘central nervous system of the earth’ and Stanley Williams’ presence in the video reminded me of the memristor and an announcement (mentioned in my April 19, 2012 posting) that HP Labs would be rolling out some memristor-enabled products in 2013. Sadly, later in the year I missed this announcement, from a July 9, 2012 posting by Chris Mellor for TheRegister.co.uk,

Previously he (Stanley Williams) has said that HP and fab partner Hynix would launch a memristor product in the summer of 2013. At the Kavli do [Kavli Foundation Roundtable, June 2012], Williams said: “In terms of commercialisation, we’ll have something technologically viable by the end of next year.”

But that doesn’t mean a commercial product launch, and Hynix’s concerns about memristor device effect on flash are relevant: “Our partner, Hynix, is a major producer of flash memory, and memristors will cannibalise its existing business by replacing some flash memory with a different technology. So the way we time the introduction of memristors turns out to be important. There’s a lot more money being spent on understanding and modeling the market than on any of the research,” said Williams. [emphasis mine]

We might see a memristor product by summer 2014 but it could be later, as Hynix balances memristor device revenues, starting from zero, cutting into flash revenues in the millions of dollars.

I think the reason innovation is often introduced by outsiders is that they have no vested interest in maintaining the status quo as per the situation with Hynix and HP Labs, i.e., not wanting to cannibalize a current and profitable product line by introducing something new and, one gathers, an improvement.

Signal danger with smart paint

I was expecting to see the Fraunhofer Institute mentioned (as I’ve covered more than one of their announcements about smart coatings) but it turns out that this smart nanotechnology-enabled paint is being developed by a research team at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland).

From the Jan. 30, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

An innovative low-cost smart paint that can detect microscopic faults in wind turbines, mines and bridges before structural damage occurs is being developed by researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. [emphasis mine]

The environmentally-friendly paint uses nanotechnology to detect movement in large structures, and could shape the future of safety monitoring.

Dr Mohamed Saafi, of the University’s Department of Civil Engineering, said: “The development of this smart paint technology could have far-reaching implications for the way we monitor the safety of large structures all over the world.

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. The process of producing and applying the paint also gives it an advantage as no expertise is required and monitoring itself is straightforward.”

The paint the researchers have been testing is made with fly ash, a recycled waste product, and carbon nanotubes. Mixed together, the ingredients yield a paint with properties similar to cement.

Sam Shead in his Jan. 30, 2012 article for The Engineer explores some of the technical aspects with David McGahon, the researcher who initiated the project as part of his PhD work. One of the aspects making this smart paint possible is that the carbon nanotubes in it can carry an electrical current and changes in the state of a structure can be detected should the carbon nanotubes on the structure bend and affect the electrical current. Excerpted from the article,

… bending is detected by electrodes incorporated within the structure and therefore any significant change in the flow of electrical current can be interpreted as a sign of a structural defect.

… wireless communication nodes [in the structures] will be powered in part by a battery but are also expected to rely on energy-harvesting methods where possible.

‘If you’re in a tunnel, you can use the vibrations of cars or trains going past to harvest power. If you’re on a bridge, you could maybe use a solar panel,’ said McGahon. ‘The idea is to make it more sustainable so you’re not running out to your bridge or structure to change the battery all the time.’

If you want to get more technical understanding of the work, I highly recommend Shead’s article.

The news item on Nanowerk offers some more ‘big picture’ details,

“Wind turbine foundations are currently being monitored through visual inspections. The developed paint with the wireless monitoring system would significantly reduce the maintenance costs and improve the safety of these large structures.

“Current technology is restricted to looking at specific areas of a structure at any given time, however, smart paint covers the whole structure which is particularly useful to maximise the opportunity of preventing significant damage.”

The research has been carried out at Strathclyde with Dr Saafi working alongside David McGahon, who initiated the work as part of his PhD project. With fly ash being the main material used to make the paint, it costs just one percent of the alternative widely used inspection methods. [emphasis mine]

A prototype has been developed and tests have shown the paint to be highly effective. It is hoped further tests will be carried out in Glasgow in the near future.

Dr Saafi added: “We are able to carry out the end-to-end process at the University and we are hoping that we can now demonstrate its effectiveness on a large structure.

If you’re at all curious as to what this smart paint looks like here’s an image of David McGahon with a wireless device and the paint (from the University of Strathclyde’s Jan. 30, 2012 news release),

David McGahon with wireless device and smart paint. Courtesy of the University of Strathclyde.

Very exciting stuff!