Someday we’ll fix infrastructure and the environment in the same way that Arizona suburbanites fix their lawns: By slapping on a coat of paint. Science has already made great strides on carbon-eating paint, and the kind of paint that can make windows into solar panels. And now researchers at at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde have developed paint that can detect underlying structural problems in bridges, mines, and turbines, allowing engineers to head disaster off at the pass.
This “smart paint” incorporates carbon nanotubes, which allow it to communicate wirelessly with electrodes attached to the bridge, turbine, or whatever. Minute signs of damage to the underlying structure — corrosion, micro-cracks, unauthorized moisture — change the paint’s electrical conductivity, transmitting a signal to the electrodes that something’s about to go wrong.
It’s still going to be a while before we can bring a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge to Home Depot and have them mix us up a bucket of orange nanopaint. The researchers are only at the prototype stage. But if this setup works on a large scale, it can avoid massive damage while costing only 1 percent as much as current monitoring systems.