Bricks Get I.Q. Boost
If walls could talk they might gossip a little. But researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign say walls could provide far more valuable information, with a little help from electrical nanotechnology.
In June, Chang Liu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and graduate student John Engel announced they had developed a "smart brick" that could transmit information about building conditions to a remote operator. "This innovation could change the face of the construction industry," said Liu. "We are living with more and more smart electronics all around us, but we still live and work in fairly dumb buildings. By making our buildings smarter, we can improve both our comfort and safety."
Smart bricks are essentially tiny sensor/transmitters installed into a normal construction brick. The prototype combines a thermistor, two-axis accelerometer and multiplexer and can monitor a building's temperature, vibration and movement. The bricks could transmit structural information to firefighters, earthquake cleanup crews and maintenance workers. Although the technology is currently housed in a brick, Liu said it could easily be applied to other construction media, including concrete blocks, laminated beams and structural steel.
The wireless sensors at the heart of smart bricks could also lower the cost of construction management. Instead of spending money on labor to run and monitor wire-connected sensors and controls, owners could pay a fewer number of people to simply review the information supplied by the bricks. "The benefit is in being wireless," Liu said. "When you remove the tether a lot of good things can happen"
Current work on the smart brick project is focused on making the unit more rugged and miniaturized. Liu and Engel are also developing software, systems and communication protocols so the technology can be commercialized. Liu said they hope to roll out the finished product in about half a year. For more information on the smart bricks and sensor technology, go to mntl.illinois.edu.
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