Bunes says the technology can be used to monitor crude oil pipelines, many of which are currently monitored with sensors that are based on pressure, which only makes them good for detecting large leaks. He envisions putting small scanners along the backbone of an oil pipe to monitor small leaks that are largely undetected. Bunes adds that the scanners could also be used throughout the fuel system of an aircraft to detect leaks, which would cut down on time locating and repairing those leaks.

The scanners are currently being commercialized by the team’s spin-off company, Vaporsens. According to Bunes, there has been global interest in the scanners. He says the next step is to continue to improve the quality of the composite material. Vaporsens is also developing the next iteration of the detector, which it hopes to begin selling next year.

Rice Melts the Ice

Project: De-icing helicopter blades
School: Rice University
Location: Houston
Principal Investigator: Jim Tour

In late January, more than 10,000 flights across the eastern United States were canceled due to winter storm Jonas. Planes can’t fly if the wings are covered in ice. However, thanks to experiments led by James Tour, a professor at Rice University, there may be a solution for future storms.

Tour and his students have found an efficient and cost-effective way to melt ice on helicopter blades with nanoribbon impregnated polymers. They coated a section of a helicopter blade with graphene nanoribbon (GNR)-infused epoxy resin to test its ability to remove ice through Joule heating. The nanoribbons are produced by another process invented at Rice – “unzipping” multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Once the nanotubes become unzipped, they split open longitudinally into graphene nanoribbons.

The team determined through previous research that graphene nanoribbons, which are incredibly conductive, would interconnect and conduct electricity across a GNR-epoxy composite with lower loadings than traditional additives. That eliminated the need for large, expensive graphene sheets.

“Even if you had a large sheet of graphene, you wouldn’t get Joule heating along it,” Tour explains. What creates Joule heating, he says, is the resistance created by two nanoribbons touching each other.

Conductivity is also important. Without it, says Tour, the coated part will explode if struck by lightning. As a bonus, the coating also provides an extra layer of electromagnetic shielding. However, the graphene nanoribbons make up only five percent of the GNR-epoxy combination, which Tour says is a good thing.