60-Second Science

Nanotubes Shrink Tests for Material Integrity

Carbon nanotubes in composites can mean easier thermal-imaging testing for signs of possibly dangerous material fatigue. Cynthia Graber reports

Airplane manufacturers have been changing over from aluminum to advanced composite materials. These lighter, stronger composites are made of fibers of carbon or glass embedded in a second material, often plastic.

One advantage is that composite-based planes use significantly less fuel. But there’s an important disadvantage. When aluminum is hit, you can see a dent. Composites, though, spring back to the original shape, which could hide internal damage.

One technique to test composite material takes advantage of heat transfer. Inspectors place large heaters next to a section of the plane. Any cracks will alter the flow of heat, and these changes can be picked up with a heat-sensitive camera. But this involves bulky and expensive equipment.

Now M.I.T. researchers have designed a new system. All you need is carbon nanotubes included in the composite, because nanotubes will heat up in response to a small electric current. This can be produced with a handheld device. Any internal deformations will still change the heat flow, which can be picked up by the thermal camera. The research was published in the journal Nanotechnology. [Roberto Guzmán de Villoria et al., "Multi-physics damage sensing in nano-engineered structural composites"]

This technique offers the ability to detect very small cracks—which could help keep passengers safer in the skies.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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