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Ultrasound sensor detects unsafe cracks in structures

20 Aug 2015

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Drawing inspiration from the hearing system of bats, researchers at the University of Strathclyde developed an ultrasound sensor that can detect cracks in structures such as nuclear plants, aircraft engines, and oil and gas pipelines.

The device, known as a transducer, identifies structural defects with varying ultrasonic frequencies and overcomes the limits of other similar devices, which are based on rigid structures and have narrow ranges. It is thought to be the first device of its kind in the world.

The transducer developed at Strathclyde has a more flexible structure, based on a natural phenomenon known in mathematics as fractals. These are irregular shapes that recur repeatedly to form objects such as snowflakes, ferns and cauliflowers, making their structure appear more complex than it often actually is. The same concept also lies behind the hearing system of animals including bats, dolphins, cockroaches and moths.

Dr Tony Mulholland, a Reader in Strathclyde's Department of Mathematics and Statistics and co-researcher on the project, said: "Fractal shapes and sound waves are characterised by having geometrical features on a range of length scales. However, manmade transducers tend to have a very regular geometry, similar to a chess board, and this restricts our ability to use this technology in finding cracks and flaws in structures where safety is critical."

"The reason transducers are still made this way is mostly historical; they were usually made by an engineer cutting with a saw and their design was traditionally done by manufacturing, but now, with 3D printing, computer manufacturing and more laser technology, the transducer we have designed is increasingly viable," he added.

Detection at an early stage

Mulholland explained that sending out complicated sound waves with different frequencies would enable humans to mimic what nature does. This technology could then be used to detect cracks in a nuclear plant or an oil pipeline that have a range of sizes and do so at an early stage.

The device could not only improve safety but also save a great deal of money, as early detection means inspections do not have to be carried out as often.

Mulholland was partnered in the study by Ebrahem Algehyne, a research student at Strathclyde's Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering.

The research has been published in the IMA Journal of Applied Mathematics.

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