Eco-friendly biological energy harvesting solutions from University College Dublin addresses real-time damage in water pipelines

Figure 1. A leak-detection rig with amino-acid crystal energy harvesting sensor

May 12th 2021

Dr. Favour Okosun, Prof. Mert Celikin and Prof. Vikram Pakrashi, University College Dublin have developed a novel Structural Health Monitoring technology for detecting damage and leaks in water pipes using the vibrations generated by the flow of water moving through the pipes.

The technology uses a novel, low-cost eco-friendly biological  sensor developed by Dr. Sarah Guerin from University of Limerick.

The sensors generate a change in voltage related to leakage or damage in pipes through energy harvesting and can detect the extent of such leakage or damage as well in real-time.

The work, funded by the Irish Research Council, is an Irish research collaboration between the Bernal Institute at UL and UCD Centre for Mechanics, Dynamical Systems and Risk Laboratory in University College Dublin where Prof. Vikram Pakrashi is the Director. Prof. Pakrashi, a senior author on the study, who has developed extensive testing facilities for validating new materials for structural health monitoring, said the findings of the research were significant.

“These amino-acid-based sensors will provide real-time sensing of pipe degradation, allowing for data-driven decision making on repair and maintenance, aiding in the global challenge of equitable water access. The work opens up future application possibilities in a wide range of sectors, including renewable energy and Industry4.0.” he explained.

“This is the first time such materials have been applied for real engineering problems – and it has addressed one of the core challenges of our time – water, detecting leaks as small as 2mm”, added Dr. Favour Okosun, whose doctoral research created the application and validation of this novel sensor.

“It is also interesting to see SFI Centres SSPC, MaREI and I-FORM to come together for this impactful work.”, added Prof. Mert Celikin, UCD, who helped develop the validation.

The journal Cell Reports Physical Science has just published a study on the findings of this innovative research.

“Biomolecular piezoelectric materials such as these offer an inexpensive, non-toxic and renewable alternative to current commercial piezoelectric devices, which rely on toxic heavy elements or require heavy processing,” said Dr Guerin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute in UL, who has been developing amino acid crystal devices since 2017.

Leak detection in fluid-carrying pipes is crucial for sustainable water access, and vibration-based techniques have proven to be effective at early detection of leak onset. Current commercial solutions are either battery powered, or if piezoelectric, very costly. Additionally, most commercial accelerometers have rigid structures, making them unsuitable for bonding to curved pipes.

“It is flexible, cheap to make, and outperforms ceramics and polymers that are used in these structural health monitoring applications. The fabrication process is suitable for mass production of these devices,” she added.