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Title: Multifunctional soft stretchable strain sensor for complementary optical and electrical sensing of fatigue cracks

Fatigue-induced cracking in steel components and other brittle materials of civil structures is one of the primary mechanisms of degrading structural integrity and can lead to sudden failures. However, these cracks are often difficult to detect during visual inspections, and off-the-shelf sensing technologies can generally only be used to monitor already identified cracks because of their spatial localization. A solution is to leverage advances in large area electronics to cover large surfaces with skin-type sensors. Here, the authors propose an elastic and stretchable multifunctional skin sensor that combines optical and capacitive sensing properties. The multifunctional sensor consists of a soft stretchable structural color film sandwiched between transparent carbon nanotube electrodes to form a parallel plate capacitor. The resulting device exhibits a reversible and repeatable structural color change from light blue to deep blue with an angle-independent property, as well as a measurable change in capacitance, under external mechanical strain. The optical function is passive and engineered to visually assist in localizing fatigue cracks, and the electrical function is added to send timely warnings to infrastructure operators. The performance of the device is characterized in a free-standing configuration and further extended to a fatigue crack monitoring application. A correlation coefficient-based image processing method is developed to quantify the strain measured by the optical color response. Results show that the sensor performs well in detecting and quantifying fatigue cracks using both the color and capacitive signals. In particular, the color signal can be measured with inexpensive cameras, and the electrical signal yields good linearity, resolution, and accuracy. Tests conducted on two steel specimens demonstrate a minimum detectable crack length of 0.84 mm.

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Smart Materials and Structures
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National Science Foundation
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