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Scientists see nano-solution to airplane safety

Thursday, Jun 16, 2011 - 03:11

June 16 - U.S. researchers have developed a new technology they say will make air travel safer. Scientists at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute are making microscopic nanotubes that can detect and repair fuselage cracks as they occur. Sharon Reich reports.

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It begins in a test-tube, heated to a thousand degrees inside a furnace. The heat converts graphene into billions of carbon nanotubes, producing the basis of a technology that aerospace engineers say could save lives. Rensselear Polytechnic Institute's Nikhil Koratkar says the nanotube material can detect and repair cracks in aircraft as they occur. He says that adding even a small amount of the carbon fillers to composite airplane wings, like those on the much-heralded Boeing 787, would extend their lifespans, making them stronger and safer. (SOUNDBITE) (English) NIKHIL KORATKAR, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT RENSSELEAR POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (RPI) DEPARTMENT OF MECHANICAL, AEROSPACE AND NUCLEAR ENGINEERING, SAYING: "What the nanofillers do is right when these microcracks are forming, right in the initial stages of formation, the presence of the nanofiller causes the cracks to grow much slower. The cracks tend to deflect and deform around these nanofillers which makes them grow at a much slower speed." While aluminum is heavy and the damage is easily identifiable, cracks in reinforced composite material are much harder to find because they usually occur inside the wing. They can only be pinpointed by using an ultrasound. Take this Southwest Airlines flight, recently forced to make an emergency landing at a militay base in Arizona. Investigators found there was widespread cracking on the skin, which caused a 5 foot long tear in the cabin. Koratkar says this is exactly the kind of wear and tear that nanofillers can target and prevent. The carbon nanotubes are microscopic. Billions of them are randomly dispersed in an epoxy resin, which can then be molded into different structures. The structures can also conduct electricity which engineers can use to locate damage caused by cracks. (SOUNDBITE) (English) NIKHIL KORATKAR, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT RENSSELEAR POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (RPI) DEPARTMENT OF MECHANICAL, AEROSPACE AND NUCLEAR ENGINEERING, SAYING: "We flow charge in the structure and b/c the glass fibers are insulating, the charge flows through the nanotubes. so anytime there is a crack, the way the charge flows changes and from that we can back out the extent of the damage. So the extent of the damage can both be sensed by using the nanoscale fillers." Once the cracks are detected, engineers can apply heat to the affected area to fuse the fracture. The repaired surfaces are about 70 percent as strong as they were but still strong enough to prevent a structural failure. Nikhil Koratkar says scientific breakthroughs at the molecular level could some day lead to much safer "smart" planes, but there is still a long way to go before carbon nanofillers hit the market. (SOUNDBITE) (English) NIKHIL KORATKAR, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT RENSSELEAR POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (RPI) DEPARTMENT OF MECHANICAL, AEROSPACE AND NUCLEAR ENGINEERING, SAYING: "The main limitation is how to disperse them. They tend to agglomerate over time and they're also expensive. Two main challenges are bringing cost down and thinking of ways to disperse them inside structure." But that isn't stopping the Rensselear team. They have high hopes that in time carbon nanotubes will be the preferred crack prevention and detection tool - making airplanes a safer mode of transportation. Sharon Reich, Reuters

Scientists see nano-solution to airplane safety

Thursday, Jun 16, 2011 - 03:11

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