LOWELL, Mass. - A team of UMass Lowell researchers has partnered with a research and development company to create new, cost-effective sensor-laden textiles that can be used to monitor the structural health and integrity of vital infrastructures across the country, including buildings and skyscrapers, roadways, bridges, tunnels, railway tracks, dams and pipelines.
UMass Lowell team leader Assoc. Prof. Tzuyang Yu and Prof. Pradeep Kurup of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with Prof. Xingwei Wang of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are collaborating with researchers from Saint-Gobain, a multinational corporation with an R&D center based in Northborough to develop fabrics integrated with optical fibers and sensors. These "sensing fabrics" can be applied to existing structures to monitor strain or detect cracks in their early stages, thereby minimizing maintenance costs, environmental impacts and disruptions to the people's lives and businesses.
In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's infrastructures an overall grade of D+, indicating they urgently need major repairs and improvements to make them safe, sustainable and economically efficient. The new textiles aim to contribute 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," said Wang, a Shrewsbury resident. "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."
The project is supported by 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 industry to transform traditional fibers, yarns and textiles into highly functional integrated and networked devices and systems. In addition, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts awarded the researchers 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 decade is needed for the necessary 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," said Yu, who lives in Andover.
Corrosion, one of the issues causing deterioration of infrastructure, does $13.6 billion in damage to highway bridges annually, according to the National Association of Corrosion Engineers.
"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 nearly 4,000 railway accidents in the country. Of these, more than 430 involved derailments and close to 450 were related to railway structural failures, according to the latest report from the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis.
Replacing the rails currently 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 more than 470 tunnels located around the U.S. and millions of miles of oil, gas and water pipes, according to Kurup, who said maintenance of all of these represents significant challenges for those responsible. For example, he said, the American Water Works Association estimates $1 trillion will be needed over the next two decades to implement much-needed repairs and upgrades.
The team's sensing textile will allow engineers to detect damages early on, thereby preventing catastrophic failures, Kurup says.
Developing a Technically Trained Workforce
Yu says that the development of the sensing fabrics will also create new business with the manufacturing, installation and maintenance of the fabrics as well as the processing and analysis 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."
Scientists, engineers, interns and co-ops at Saint-Gobain will be trained in this emerging 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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