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Printed Sensors Monitor Tire Wear in Real Time

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Scientists at Duke University have created a new device that monitors the tread on car tires in real time. This technology can also alert drivers as to when their tread has become worryingly thin. The engineers behind this technology believe that it will save lives and improve vehicle performance — all thanks to an inexpensive printed sensor.

The tread monitoring technology uses metallic carbon nanotubes, which are microscopic cylinders of carbon atoms a mere one-billionth of a meter thick. These carbon nanotubes track minute changes in tread depth, and have so far resulted in 99% accuracy. The monitor can track these changes on the millimeter scale, meaning even the slightest difference will raise alarms.

The device relies on our understanding of electrical fields, and how they interact with metallic conductors. Two small, electrically conductive electrodes are placed close together. An oscillating electrical voltage is applied to one; a grounding electrical voltage is applied to the other. The end result of all this is an electric field being formed between the electrodes. Any material placed on top of the electrodes will interfere with this field. Engineers can measure the interference, and thus determine the thickness of the material that has come into contact with the electrodes.

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“With all of the technology and sensors that are in today’s cars, it’s kind of crazy to think that there’s almost no data being gathered from the only part of the vehicle that is actually touching the road. Our tire tread sensor is the perfect marriage between high-end technology and a simple solution.”

Aaron Franklin, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke.

The sensors can be easily printed, and are durable enough to withstand the interior environment of a tire. Engineers used an aerosol jet printer, which allows the sensors to be printed on virtually any material. They could even be printed on the tires themselves. And this method is extremely cheap, coming in at less than a penny per sensor.

And this is just the beginning; the engineers hope to use this technology in other ways as well. They are currently exploring using the sensors to track the thickness of brake pads, as well as the air pressure of tires. Whatever steps they take next, this technology could prove a dramatic game-changer for the whole of the automobile industry.

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