Nanotechnology to protect from earthquakes

Two separate efforts using high-tech to protect people from earthquakes have been recently revealed. At the University of Leeds, researchers will use nanotechnology and RFID tags to build a 'self-healing' house in Greece. The house walls will contain nanoparticles that turn into a liquid when squeezed under pressure, flow into cracks, and then harden to form a solid material. They also will host a network of wireless sensors and RFID tags which can alert the residents of an imminent earthquake. Meanwhile, another team at the Washington University in St. Louis will use a wireless sensor network to limit earthquake damages.

Two separate efforts using high-tech to protect people from earthquakes have been recently revealed. At the University of Leeds, UK, researchers will use nanotechnology and RFID tags to build a 'self-healing' house in Greece. The house walls will contain nanoparticles that turn into a liquid when squeezed under pressure, flow into cracks, and then harden to form a solid material. They also will host a network of wireless sensors and RFID tags which can alert the residents of an imminent earthquake. Meanwhile, another team at the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) will use a wireless sensor network to limit earthquake damages.

Let's start with the wireless sensors which were tested at WUSTL in the simulated structural control of a model laboratory building. This project was led by Shirley Dyke, professor of civil engineering and director of the WUSTL's Structural Control and Earthquake Engineering Lab.

Below is a picture of Dyke (left) and one of her students adjusting "wireless sensors onto a model laboratory building in Dyke's laboratory. Dyke is the first person to test wireless sensors in simulated structural control experiments." (Credit: WUSTL) Here is a link to a larger version of this photo.

Wireless sensors onto a model laboratory building

Here are some details about these wireless sensors. "The wireless sensors, about a square inch in size, are attached to the sides of buildings to monitor the force of sway when shaking, similar to an earthquake, occurs. The sensors are then transmitted to a computer program that translates the random units read by the sensors into units useful for the engineers and computer programmers. The computer sends a message to magnetorheological dampers, or MR dampers, that are within the building's structure to dampen the effect of the swaying on the structure."

Now, let's cross the Atlantic Ocean to learn what the University of Leeds' NanoManufacturing Institute (NMI) is about to do with nanotechnology, RFID tags and wireless sensors.

[The NMI] will play a crucial role in the £9.5 million [or 14 million €] European Union-funded project by developing special walls for the house that contain nano polymer particles -- these will turn into a liquid when squeezed under pressure, flow into the cracks, and then harden to form a solid material. NMI chief executive Professor Terry Wilkins said: "What we're trying to achieve here is very exciting; we're looking to use polymers in much tougher situations than ever before on a larger scale."

They plan to build a house in Amphilochia, in western Greece, where manufacturer Knauf, a German supplier of building materials -- and a partner in the project -- runs a manufacturing plant specialized in gypsum. This house should be completed by 2010. But it will be a very special one.

The house walls will be built from novel load bearing steel frames and high-strength gypsum board. But they will be unique for another reason too -- they’ll contain wireless, battery-less sensors and Leeds-designed radio frequency identity tags that collect vast amounts of data about the building over time, such as any stresses and vibrations, temperature, humidity and gas levels. "If there are any problems, the intelligent sensor network will alert residents straightaway so they have time to escape," added Professor Wilkins.

Now, let's hope that these researchers' efforts will save lives.

Sources: University of Leeds Reporter, March 26, 2007; Jennie Iverson and Tony Fitzpatrick, Washington University in St. Louis News, April 13, 2007; and various websites

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