Monitoring structural safety – with paint

A new smart paint can monitor wind turbines, mines and bridges and detect microscopic faults long before structural damage occurs.

Developed by researchers at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, the paint uses nanotechnology to detect movement in large structures.

It costs just a fraction of the cost of standard safety monitoring, and can simply be sprayed onto any surface, with electrodes attached to detect structural damage.

“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,” says Dr Mohamed Saafi, of the University’s Department of Civil Engineering.

“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 consists of fly ash, a recycled waste product, and highly-aligned carbon nanotubes. It’s interfaced with wireless communication nodes with power harvesting and warning capability to remotely detect unseen damage such as micro-cracks in a wind turbine concrete foundation.

“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,” says Saafi.

“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 team says the paint costs just one percent of alternative methods, and has been shown to be highly effective. They now plan to try it out on a larger structure.

“The smart paint represents a significant development, and is one that has possibly been overlooked as a viable solution because research tends to focus on high-tech options that look to eliminate human control,” says Saafi.

“Our research shows that by maintaining the human element, the costs can be vastly reduced without an impact on effectiveness.”