RolaTube Technology has developed a material which allows a mast the size of a lamp-post to be rolled up and carried around in a sportsbag.
Mitsui Babcock Energy is already using the technology, called bi-stable reeled composites (BRC), to inspect equipment used in power station boilers.
Long rigid poles, masts and booms made of BRC – manufactured from fibres and plastic – can be rolled up like a metal tape measure. They are bi-stable as they can lock into two stable configurations: rigid tubes or struts, or reels of flat, tape-like material. The longitudinal seam of a BRC tube can be temporarily fastened or permanently welded for use as a conduit.
BRC units can be retracted to less than 10% of their extended length, which can reach up to a height of 100m.
The material is made from a variety of thermoplastics and fibres, according to the operating characteristics desired. For most applications, masts are made from glass fibre and polypropylene.
At temperatures above 80*C, nylon can be used instead. To add stiffness, in the case of horizontal applications such as a boom, carbon fibre is added. Fibre optics, cables, sensors, metal meshes and other elements can also be incorporated during manufacture to create reeled structures with `intelligent’ properties.
The materials arrive in RolaTube Technology’s Brentford site in Middlesex in the form of uni-directional pre-impregnated tape in which the fibres are all uniformly aligned. Glass fibre beads and polymer films are laid in a laminar form and manually cut before processing.
`Bi-stable Reeled Composites do lend themselves to mass production, but the market tends to be for bespoke units,’ said Quentin Compton-Bishop, RolaTube Technology’s chief executive officer.
The Mitsui mast, being built for British Energy, will carry an inspection package of camera and lights through an access pipe into boilers during routine inspections.