Sensor Fabrics to Monitor Structural Health of Infrastructures

Researchers at UMass Lowell have collaborated with a research and development company to develop new, economical sensor-laden textiles that can be used to monitor the structural health and integrity of vital infrastructures across the country, including roadways, railway tracks, bridges, buildings and skyscrapers, tunnels, dams and pipelines.

UMass Lowell team leader Assoc. Prof. Tzuyang Yu and Prof. Pradeep Kurup of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, together with Prof. Xingwei Wang of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are partnering with researchers from Saint-Gobain, a multinational corporation with an R&D center based in Northborough to create fabrics combined with optical fibers and sensors. These "sensing fabrics" can be applied to current structures to monitor strain or detect cracks in their early stages, thus decreasing maintenance costs, environmental impacts and disruptions to the people's businesses and lives.

In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's infrastructures a total grade of D+, signifying they immediately need critical repairs and improvements to make them safe, sustainable, and economically efficient. The new textiles aim to add toward that effort.

Optical fiber sensors are very suitable for structural health monitoring due to their lightweight, low-cost, survivability in harsh environments and immunity to electromagnetic environments. 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.

Prof. Xingwei Wang

The project received an $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 sector to transform traditional fibers, yarns and textiles into extremely functional integrated and networked systems and devices. Furthermore, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts awarded the team a $550,000 grant through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2).

A State of Disrepair

The ASCE estimates that a $2 trillion investment over the next 10 years is required for the essential repairs and upgrades of the country's infrastructure.

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.

Assoc. Prof. Tzuyang Yu

According to the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, corrosion, one of the problems causing deterioration of infrastructure, does $13.6 billion in damage to highway bridges each year.

"The use of our proposed sensing textiles can help proactively assess the structural integrity of concrete and steel bridges," Yu said.

From 2014 to 2017, there were approximately 4,000 railway accidents in the country. Of these, over 430 involved derailments and almost 450 were related to railway structural failures, according to a recent report from the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis.

Changing the rails at present costs approximately $1 million to $2 million per mile, according to Kurup, who lives in Lexington.

"Our proposed sensing textile product can be used on concrete ties and steel rails as well as under ballasts to monitor the structural health of railroad tracks. A distributed sensing system for railroads will enable engineers to mitigate local damages through effective repair and strengthening, thereby avoiding unnecessary and costly rail replacement," he said.

There are as many as 470 tunnels located around the U.S. and millions of miles of water, oil, and gas pipes, according to Kurup, who said maintenance of all of these signifies major challenges for those responsible. For instance, he said, the American Water Works Association estimates $1 trillion will be required over the next 20 years to implement much-needed upgrades and repairs.

The team's sensing textile will allow engineers to detect damages in advance, thus preventing disastrous failures, Kurup says.

Developing a Technically Trained Workforce

Yu says that the creation of the sensing fabrics will also develop new business with the manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of the fabrics as well as the processing and scrutiny 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 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 U.S. in today's globally competitive market."

Engineers, scientists, interns and co-ops at Saint-Gobain will be trained in this upcoming technology, the team said.

"At UMass Lowell, we anticipate that the project will be used to train future engineers at both undergraduate and graduate levels in civil and electrical engineering," said Yu. "In addition, Saint-Gobain and UMass Lowell will hold training workshops designed to educate users on the value of infrastructure sensing and system capabilities."

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