February R&D Round Up

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month's examples of clever and useful sensor research includes smart paint to monitor structures, an implantable medical sensor that uses music to recharge, and a robot to remove stomach cancers.

Smart Paint
You know, over the years we've seen a lot of very, very interesting technologies developed to try to make assessing the health of a structure both easier and more comprehensive. Dr. Mohamed Saafi and Dave McGahon of the University of Strathclyde's Dept. of Civil Engineering have developed a smart paint that combines fly ash (cheap) and aligned carbon nanotubes. Attach electrodes and couple them to a wireless sensor network and you get a system that can sense motion of the painted surface and therefore provide warning of microcracks in the underlying structure. As the article "Smart paint could revolutionise structural safety" explains, the paint can withstand harsh environments and doesn't require special expertise to apply. I can't wait to hear how the paint (and monitoring system) perform when subjected to a real-world test. I'm a huge fan of technologies that help the people monitoring civil structures to get better, more reliable data, especially if it also makes their lives easier.

Implantable Sensor Feels the Beat
This next story just amuses me because it combines something very useful-an implantable pressure sensor-with a little bit of puckish genius because the vibrating cantilever that forms the sensor is made of a piezoelectric material and so can generate energy (and thus send measurement data and recharge the device) when subjected to acoustic waves in the appropriate frequency range. The puckish bit comes in because, rather than using a boring single note of the required frequency, the Purdue University researchers behind this device thought it'd be more interesting to use music to do so. Apparently rap works best because of its "strong bass component." To learn more about the sensor/energy harvester/inspired piece of engineering read, "Rap music powers rhythmic action of medical sensor."

A Robotic Cancer Extractor
I can't decide whether to be impressed, a little freaked out, or both by the news that doctors and a mechanical engineer from Singapore's National University Hospital and Nanyang Technological Institute, respectively have together developed a crab-inspired robot that travels down your throat and into your gut to remove any cancerous tumors therein. On the one hand, anything that reduces the need for invasive surgery is a benefit for the patients. On the other hand, something about that mental image of a robot trekking down your throat makes me think of Neo horking up his feeding tube during the movie The Matrix. I wish the PhysOrg.com article, "Engineer builds robot based on crab to remove stomach cancers" had more technical detail, because it's a beautiful piece of engineering and enables some very fancy surgical work in a challenging area of the body.