MSU Developing Self-Powered Sensors That Speak

Rigoberto Burgueno, Subir Biswas, and Shantanu Chakrabartty are developing a new technology known as substrate computing at Michigan State University. This will allow sensing, communication and diagnostic computing, all within the substrate – the building material – of a structure, using energy harvested from the structure itself. (Photo courtesy of MSU).

EAST LANSING — Imagine a bridge or a dam that could sense a structural defect at its earliest stages, diagnose what the problem will become and alert the authorities before something awful happens.

Three Michigan State University College of Engineering researchers are developing a new technology known as substrate computing. This will allow sensing, communication and diagnostic computing, all within the substrate – the building material – of a structure, using energy harvested from vibrations within the structure itself.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, including a recent $1 million grant.

Subir Biswas, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the goal is to install sensors that continuously monitor and report on the structure’s integrity, using new sensor-network technology.

Biswas said that “adoption of such monitoring has previously been limited because of the frequency of battery replacement for battery-powered sensors, as well as the need for a separate communication subsystem usually involving radio frequency sensor networks.”

Developing the technology is a research team comprised of Biswas; an MSU colleague, Rigoberto Burgueno, professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University at St. Louis.

“Our research is in the area of smart modular substrates with embedded sensing, communication and computing, that use advancements in mechanical energy harvesting and ultrasound communications to make it a reality,” Biswas said.

In the future, this technology will be routinely used in building materials, so that structures such as bridges and buildings will be able to detect and diagnose potential problems without the need for an external energy source and a separate wireless sensor network. The goal is to integrate all these functions within a tiny 3 millimeters-by-3 millimeters electronic chip, which can be embedded within the material of a structure.

“These electronic chips, with MSU-patented technology, will be capable of detecting the nature of a fault, send the fault information through the structure material itself and compute the fault pattern across the entire structure,” Biswas said.

The technology is expected to be commercially available in five years.

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