Safer structures with carbon nanotubes

Using nanotubes to conduct electricity and allow early detection of failing structures

Vijaya Chalivendra
Mechanical Engineering professor Vijaya Chalivendra is on his way to making our structures and environment safer.

By Adrienne Wartts

Vijaya Chalivendra, professor of mechanical engineering, is researching the use of carbon nanotubes in avoiding catastrophic failure in buildings.

He is embedding carbon nanotubes in composite building materials to allow early detection of damage in structures, which can prevent buildings from collapsing and help save lives.

Carbon nanotubes are strong and conduct electricity at almost 1,000 times the conductive rate of pure copper. “Thus if we add a tiny bit of carbon nanotubes into plastics or composites, we can make composites or plastics conductive,” Chalivendra said.

The long, skinny carbon nanotubes can create a network of conductivity throughout a building or other structure. Experts could then measure the change in electrical resistance of a structure under various loads and circumstances, allowing them to detect damage early.

Composites are currently used to build Army, Navy, and Air Force structures and commercial airline and transportation systems, he said.

He is also trying to strengthen natural fibers with nanotubes. “Natural fibers are abundant in nature and if we make use of them effectively, we can reduce the carbon footprint caused by traditional composites,” said Chalivendra.

Chalivendra collaborates in his research with other UMassD professors, including Lamya Karim, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who is studying bones affected by diabetes (see Summer 2017 issue).

He has received multiple awards for his research—including a $291,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a $671,000 grant from the Army Research Laboratory, and a $235,000 grant from the Department of Defense.


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