Koratkar is confident this method will be just as effective with much larger structures. Since the nanotubes are ubiquitous through the structure, this technique to monitor any portion of the structure by performing simple resistance measurements without the need to mount external sensors or sophisticated electronics.
“The beauty of this method is that the carbon nanotubes are everywhere. The sensors are actually an integral part of the structure, which allows you to monitor any part of the structure,” Koratkar said. “We’ve shown that nanoscale science, if applied creatively, can really make a difference in large-scale engineering and structures.”
Koratkar said the new crack detection method should eventually be more cost effective and more convenient than ultrasonic sensors commonly used today. His sensor system can also be used in real time when a device or component is in use, whereas the sonic sensors are external units that require a great deal of time to scan the entire surface area of a stationary structure.
Plus, Koratkar’s system features a built-in repair kit.
When a crack is detected, Koratkar can increase the voltage going through the carbon nanotubes at a particular point in the grid. This extra voltage creates heat, which in turn melts a commercially available healing agent that was mixed into the epoxy. The melted healing agent flows into the crack and cools down, effectively curing the crack. Koratkar shows that these mended structures are about 70 percent as strong as the original, uncracked structure strong enough to prevent a complete, or catastrophic, structural failure. This method effectively combats both microcracks and a less-common form of structural damage called delamination.
“What’s novel about this application is that we’re using carbon nanotubes not just to detect the crack, but also to heal the crack,” he said. “We use the nanotubes to create localized heat, which melts the healing agent, and that’s what cures the crack.”
Looking to the Future
Koratkar said he envisions the new system for detecting cracks to eventually be integrated into the built-in computer system of a fighter jet or large piece of equipment. The system will allow the operator to monitor a structure’s integrity in real time, and any microcracks or delamination will become obvious by provoking a change in electrical resistance at some point in the structure.
The system should help increase the lifetime, safety, and cost effectiveness of polymer structures, which are commonly used in place of metal when weight is a factor, Koratkar said. There is also evidence that carbon nanotubes play a passive role in suppressing the rate at which microcracks grow in polymeric structures, which is the subject of a paper Koratkar expects to publish in the near future.
The research is team now works to optimize the system, scale it up to larger structures, and develop new information technology to better collect and analyze the electrical resistance data created from the embedded grid and embedded carbon nanotubes.
The ongoing research project is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army.
Photo credit: RPI/Kris Qua