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Optic fibre sensors: An aircraft wing that knows when it is corroding Return to case studies page

Roman Kostecki and Tanya Monro, OptoFab node — University of Adelaide
Frontier technologies
Aircraft wings with built in corrosion detectors could save millions in maintenance and increase the safety of aircraft.

This is one of many technologies evolving from a new generation of sensors made from optical fibres that are being developed at the OptoFab Node of ANFF.

New applications for these optic fibre devices include: structural stress sensing, virus detection for diagnostics, bacterial detection for water quality monitoring, and sulphate detection to monitor wine fermentation.

Professor Tanya Monro, from the Optofab Node of ANFF and Director of the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS), describes the technology:

“Most people are familiar with optic fibres with a circular cross section transmitting light without any loss for data communication.

Optic fibres used for sensing are often micro or nano-structured and coated with materials that respond when the light comes into contact with a range of chemical or biological markers, which can easily be detected.”

The team at IPAS initially developed a variety of sensors using micro-structured optical fibres made from soft glass. However, these fibres are not suited to the harsh environment in aircraft wings.

The team at IPAS has provided a critical step towards solving this problem. At the Australian Institute of Physics conference last December, PhD student Roman Kostecki presented micro-structured optic fibres fabricated from silica glass, a material robust enough for corrosion sensing applications. These fibres were made using recently commissioned OptoFab capabilities: the ultrasonic milling and optical fibre draw tower facilities located on the University of Adelaide campus.

"These findings and our new capabilities mean we can start to apply our sensors to real world problems," said Professor Monro. “Aircraft, for example, could contain these fibres so lasers could be fired along them to detect aluminium ions as an indicator of corrosion. At the moment you have to routinely pull the plane apart to visually inspect it for corrosion, so there's a lot of lost flight time and costs.” While still believed to be several years away, the team will continue developing the aircraft corrosion application of this work with their partners at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

Australia should look forward to seeing many other home grown sensing technologies evolve from ANFF and IPAS in the years to come.