Lancaster engineers to develop self-healing Biomorphic Sensors

Professor Andrew Richardson and Dr David Cheneler stood outside the Engineering Department
Professor Andrew Richardson and Dr David Cheneler

A new research project will develop self-healing smart sensors for monitoring nuclear waste storage containers.

Born out of 30 years of research at Lancaster University’s Engineering Department, and commercialised in partnership with Lancaster-based SME, enablingMNT UK Ltd, the ‘Biomorphic Sensors for Condition Monitoring & Inspection in Critical Environments’ project is being developed to support complex challenges in nuclear decommissioning at the Sellafield site in west Cumbria.

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.

“The goal of building sensors and sensor arrays that can self-adapt and self-heal has, until recently, been the domain of science fiction,” said Dr David Cheneler from Lancaster University’s Department of Engineering.

“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 them into the critical environments of the waste storage facilities at Sellafield.” 

The project was instigated by a call for innovative 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. The project has received funding of £45,000 from the Sellafield Game Changer Innovation Programme.

enablingMNT UK Ltd and Lancaster University responded to the Condition Monitoring and Inspection (CM&I) technical brief issued by Game Changers.

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 is to develop a smart corrosion sensor with self-monitoring and self-healing capabilities.

Professor Andrew Richardson, also from the Engineering Department at Lancaster University has setup the startup company enablingMNT UK Ltd to explore routes to commercialisation of the research in self-testable electronics and sensors that has been active in the Engineering Department for many years.

He said: “We have a real opportunity to apply our work to key challenges facing industry and society in the area of high integrity sensing. We will also work closely with Ultra Electronics, a FTSE250-listed company and key player in the nuclear, energy and defence sectors, who is a third partner in the project. Their involvement will focus on exploring manufacturing options for future scaling-up.”

Dr Frank Allison is MD of commercialisation specialists FIS360 Ltd, a delivery partner for the Game Changers initiative 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.”

“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 use prognostic data generated by the sensors self-monitoring function and use this to 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 Professor Richardson.

“This project presents a major stepping stone towards 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.”

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).

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