A new proof-of-concept project is being launched to demonstrate that sensors for monitoring critical assets and processes can be built with a self-healing capability.
The result of an ongoing collaboration between Lancaster University’s Engineering Department and a local SME, enablingMNT UK Ltd, the project is being developed to support complex challenges in the realm of nuclear decommissioning, specifically at the Sellafield site in west Cumbria.
“The goal of building sensors and sensor arrays that can self-adapt and self-heal has, until recently, been the domain of science fiction.” explains Prof. Andrew Richardson, who specialises in high reliability sensing technology.
“Over the past few years, research has shown that it is feasible to extract prognostics from a range of sensors without the need to apply a known measurand. Our technology applies these findings and translates applies them into the critical environments of the waste storage facilities at the Sellafield site.”
Demonstrations of the proof-of-concept project are scheduled for mid-2019 to audiences comprising technical teams from Sellafield Ltd and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL).
The project was instigated by a call for ideas by the Game Changers Innovation Programme, a Sellafield Ltd funded initiative tasked with discovering and supporting early stage technologies that can accelerate the decommissioning mission and deliver cost efficiencies, whilst upholding environmental and operator safety.
enablingMNT UK Ltd and Lancaster University responded to the Condition Monitoring and Inspection (CM&I) technical brief issued by Game Changers, a challenge to introduce innovative thinking and technologies into this area of operations.
Paul Knight of NNL and Programme Lead for Game Changers explains: “There are thousands of waste containers currently stored on the Sellafield site, each containing materials and objects which are the result of nuclear reprocessing or decommissioning activities over the past decades.”
“These containers are placed in secure above-ground stores across the site, and it is anticipated that there could be more than 150,000 packages sent to such stores over the next few decades.
“The CM&I challenge was issued to engage with organisations which could introduce new thinking and technologies, including those already deployed in other industry sectors or as the result of research by academia.”
Areas of particular interest to Sellafield Ltd include smart containers/packages that monitor themselves, large area scanning akin to hydrocarbon detection on oil refineries or atmospheric monitoring, and techniques for visual observation and image analysis.
The approach from enablingMNT UK Ltd and Lancaster University was to develop a modified biomorphic corrosion sensor with self-monitoring and self-healing capabilities.
The project is being led by Prof, Andrew Richardson and Dr David Cheneler from the Engineering Department at Lancaster University, with enablingMNT UK Ltd exploring routes to commercialisation.
Ultra Electronics, a FTSE250-listed company and key player in the nuclear, energy and defence sectors, is a third partner in the project. Their involvement will focus on exploring manufacturing options for future scaling-up.
This technology could represent a first step to the deployment of sensor arrays that can self-adapt and self-heal, paving the way to a step-change in the reliability and dependability of systems in a wide range of applications including medical, environmental monitoring, security and energy.
Dr Frank Allison is MD of commercialisation specialists FIS360 Ltd, a delivery partner for the Game Changers initiative who is involved in monitoring the project:
“The Biomorphic Sensors project has seen great interest from within Sellafield Ltd. It is genuinely new approach in this area of condition monitoring and inspection, not just in nuclear but across other industry sectors.”
“We see great potential for the team at enablingMNT and Lancaster University, a strong collaboration between academia and SMEs which should also be of interest to the larger Tier 2 Supply Chain businesses currently working with Sellafield.”
“The role we envisage for this technology is in supporting the current high integrity monitoring systems, very much an ‘evolution’ towards making the monitoring process even more efficient.”
The next development step in the project is to take this prognostic data and either adjust the sensors’ calibration or apply simple analogue or digital compensation methods.
“The amount of ‘tuning’ can then be used to make decisions on how badly the sensor or sensor array is degraded.” adds Prof. Richardson, “The next step will be to explore the use of self-healing materials within the design of next generation devices that can be activated by these ‘tuning’ functions and apply the concept to the sensors’ power supply.”
“This project presents a real and credible opportunity to build sensors that behave more like Biological Material – like the healing of cuts and legions on human skin – that could open the door to a new technology for Biomorphic sensing.”