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Smart as a brick. (Eureka: emerging technologies).

A brick that could monitor a building's conditions and save lives has been produced by researchers at the Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. When fixed into a wall, the "smart brick" could detect a structure's vibration, temperature, and movement. Such data could be critical to rescue workers determining the structural integrity of an earthquake-damaged building, or to fire fighters battling a burning skyscraper.

The work conducted by Chang Liu and graduate student Jon Engel joined signal processing, sensor fusion, basic construction products,, and wireless technology into a multi-modal sensor package that can transmit a building's conditions to a remote operator. The smart brick has an embedded two-axis accelerometer, multiplexer, thermistor, transmitter, battery and antenna. The application of this multi-modal sensor package is not limited to bricks, however, since "You also could embed the sensor circuitry in concrete blocks, laminated beams, structural steel and many other building materials" says Liu.

To prolong the battery life, these fully wireless bricks could be set to scan a building's health intermittently, rather than continuously. In addition, the implanted battery could be powered by an inductive coil, comparable to the one employed in artificial heart pumps and electric toothbrushes.

Potential Improvements

The scientists see the possibility of reducing the size of the sensor package by using other than the standard off-the-shelf materials employed to build the prototype. Thus, if the sensor system was made to fit "onto one chip, and then put that chip on a piece of plastic, rather than silicon," says Liu, there is "lots of room for making the sensor package smaller."

Another potential improvement revolves around the fabrication of the sensor packages on flexible surfaces, instead of silicon, which is a hard, brittle substance that can quickly fracture. Such an enhancement would make the sensor packages more flexible, providing further uses for them. For instance, "you could wrap a flexible sensor around the iron reinforcing bars that strengthen concrete and then monitor the strain," says Liu.

As a matter of fact, work has begun on the flexible sensor, named "smart skin," by placing metal films on flexible polymer substrates. Although not yet wireless, the smart skin is capable of not only determining surface roughness, but also measuring temperature, conductivity, and hardness.

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Title Annotation:monitoring building conditions
Comment:Smart as a brick. (Eureka: emerging technologies).(monitoring building conditions)
Publication:R & D
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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