Civil Engineering Shortlist

NERVES OF GLASS: FIBRE OPTIC HEALTH MONITORING FROM CONCEPT TO REALITY


BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre, Smart Fibres, Insensys and University of Aston

Using glass fibres to monitor structural integrity is a technique that has its origins in the aerospace sector. A collaboration between BAE Systems and Aston University’s school of engineering has spawned two new companies, supplying optical fibre-based structural monitoring to military and civilian customers in fields such as oil and gas, maritime and civil engineering.

The technique was first developed in the 1990s, as the use of carbon-fibre composites in aircraft became more widespread. These materials suffered damage in a different way to conventional metal aircraft, and it became apparent that what was needed was something like a ‘nervous system’ for the structure — something that would spread through the aircraft, log its ageing, and detect and locate damage.

The BAE/Aston collaboration focused on the use of optical fibres embedded into composites to measure strain.

This also entailed the development of optoelectronic instruments to produce useable information from the sensor arrays, as well as a method to connect all the arrays together.

While the results of the collaboration are an integral system in new aircraft such as
the F-35 Lightning 2 strike fighter, it has also spread into other sectors. Two new companies, Smart Fibres and Insensys, were spun off, with Smart Fibres supplying optical monitoring systems for public buildings, road bridges, wind and tidal current turbines, shipping and oil wells. Insensys, meanwhile, concentrates on selling the systems into the wind turbine sector, where they measure the load on turbine blades.

DSP FOR BURIED CABLE DETECTION
Cable Detection and University of Staffordshire

A project to bring a new technology into a range of products for detecting underground electric cables brought together Staffordshirebased Cable Detection with researchers at Staffordshire University. The project opened up applications for the technology in the nuclear decommissioning sector, and a novel combination of machine vision, robotics and cable detection.

The technology of interest was digital signal processing, which increases the sensitivity of underground cable location; and the project, enabled via a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, allowed Cable Detection, a small company, access to this high-level technology. This, it says, enabled it to develop leading-edge products — an excavatormounted buried service detector called EZiDIG, a miniature handheld product called Sonde that detects blockages in underground pipes, and an upcoming product, a high-performance, low-power buried service avoidance tool called Catapult — and to compete with and gain market share over its larger rivals.

As a result of the project, Sellafield invited the university team to produce a demonstrator for nuclear decommissioning applications, for which it set up a partnership with Cable Detection and JCB. Another application was found in monitoring oil and gas pipelines, which is now the focus of a PhD project at the university.

The BASF house

CREATIVE ENERGY HOMES


University of Nottingham and Tarmac

Reducing the energy usage and carbon emissions from houses is an important part of climate policy, but there’s a major stumblingblock — much of the UK’s housing dates back to an era where this wasn’t part of the original design brief. A project at the University of Nottingham aimed to find ways of making all sorts of housing as energy efficient as possible, from innovative types of new build to retrofitting onto 1930s-style buildings.

The university’s School of the Built Environment teamed up with more than 120 companies, including E.ON, BASF and concrete engineering specialist company Roger Bullivant to build six Creative Energy Homes, each designed to test building construction and sustainable technologies to find the most cost-effective ways to make homes eco-friendly. These included a house based on a lightweight steel frame; a 1930sstyle house to which technologies such as double glazing and insulation will be fitted in increments to determine their effectiveness; a ‘solar passive’ house, which uses phase-change boards and solar energy to reduce summer overheating; a house costing £60,000 using lightweight concrete panels and a ground-source heat pump; and a pair of semi-detached houses using biologically derived and recycled materials to reduce cement content.

The project, which also involved leading architects, is now being replicated around the world on the university’s overseas campuses. According to the university, it has been ‘extremely valuable’.