College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

A Race to the Bottom: From Bomb-Sniffing Robots to Airplane Arteries

In the odd world of nanotechnology, inanimate objects bruise, bleed, and even sniff the air.


In the odd world of nanotechnology, inanimate objects bruise, bleed, and even sniff the air.

Nanotechnology works at minute dimensions thousands of times smaller than a human cell, making it possible for researchers to create tiny devices capable of scanning for disease in the bloodstream or delivering targeted treatments. But nanotechnology also has a myriad of uses in non-living matter, where it is very good at mimicking the body.

The following three projects from Jeffrey Moore, LAS chemistry professor, are very different from each other. But what they have in common is that they each emulate a function of the body.

Bomb-Sniffing Robots

Moore is working with nanofibers that can detect small amounts of vapor released by TNT and other explosives. A company that produces land-mine detecting systems has already picked up on this research and is attempting to commercialize a system that can more effectively detect land mine vapors rising up through the ground.

Today, bomb-sniffing dogs detect explosive vapors at the level of parts per billion or parts per trillion. The idea is to replace these dogs with robots equipped with nanofiber sensors that travel across dangerous territory, sniffing out bombs.

“A dog sniffs the air above the land mine,” he says. “But dogs are living animals and can get distracted. A robot cannot be distracted.”

Color-Changing Parts

Moore has created nano-sized entities that undergo a force-induced chemical change deep within a mechanical part when it is damaged. If a key component in an airplane is damaged and weakened internally, this chemical reaction will actually cause the part to change color, much the way that a bruise changes the color of our skin, revealing internal damage.

“All you need to see this damage is a pair of eyes,” he says. “Nano-scale devices like this take advantage of their small size to do things that just wouldn’t be possible on a larger scale.”

Circulatory Systems in Cars and Planes

Cars have exhaust systems, navigation systems, and fuel systems. But in the future, they might also have circulatory systems, comparable to vascular systems that carry blood throughout the bodies of humans and animals, says Moore.

Moore and his engineering colleagues, Scott White and Nancy Sottos, have come up with a method that could be used to create a network of channels throughout the bodies of airplanes, automobiles, or ships. If a cut develops in an airplane wing, this circulatory system would send healing agents to repair the damage. The channels are micron-sized, not nano-sized, but they are still extremely fine.

Illinois researchers took a major step toward such a system when they became the first to demonstrate a feasible way of creating a network of tiny, empty channels in fabricated material. The idea is to fill the network of hollow channels with healing agents. Then, when a component is damaged, the channels rupture and the healing agents are released and mix, triggering the healing process.

According to Moore, technicians will be able to regularly add fresh healing agents to the channels, much the way you change the oil in your car. What's more, hollow channels can be filled with many different types of materials—not just healing agents. For instance, a vascular system within an airplane wing could contain de-icing agents.

By Doug Peterson
Summer 2012