A sensor to detect real-time pipe damage has been made using crystals

12 May 2021

Dr Sarah Guerin of University of Limerick and the Bernal Institute. Image: Sean Curtin/True Media

University of Limerick’s Dr Sarah Guerin says the crystal-based sensor can detect leaks ‘as small as 2mm’ in water pipes.

A researcher at the University of Limerick has developed a low-cost sensor that can detect damage in pipes in real time and could help save water.

This sensor uses highly sensitive, environmentally friendly crystals that generate an electrical signal in response to the leak.

“The sensor is made of crystallised amino acids that are sensitive enough to detect leaks as small as 2mm,” explained Dr Sarah Guerin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick’s Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute.

“Computer simulations show that they generate electricity in response to a force – such as strain or vibration – known as the piezoelectric effect.”

In a study published this week in Cell Reports Physical Science, an Irish research collaboration between the Bernal Institute and the Dynamical Systems and Risk Laboratory at University College Dublin validated the crystal-based sensor.

Guerin, who has been developing amino acid crystal devices since 2017, said this is the first validation of these biological crystals for real-world applications.

The researchers noted that vibration-based techniques have been shown to be effective for the early detection of leaks in fluid-carrying pipes, which is crucial for sustainable water access.

But they added that current commercial solutions are either very costly, unsuitable for curved pipes, or are battery powered.

“This sensor has a number of advantages over current technologies,” Guerin said. “It is flexible, cheap to make, and outperforms ceramics and polymers that are used in structural health monitoring applications. The fabrication process is suitable for mass production of these devices.

“Biomolecular piezoelectric materials such as these offer an inexpensive, non-toxic and renewable alternative to current commercial piezoelectric devices, which rely on toxic heavy elements or require heavy processing.”

Prof Vikram Pakrashi of University College Dublin, who was a senior author on the study, has developed testing facilities for validating materials for structural health monitoring that simulate damage in buildings and pipelines. He said the findings of the research were “significant”.

“These amino-acid-based sensors will provide real-time sensing of pipe degradation, allowing for data-driven decision making on repair and maintenance, aiding in the global challenge of equitable water access,” he said.

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic