Wireless ultrasonic sensors for fast detection of defects

Compact, wireless sensors that provide fast, lower cost measurements on corrosion, cracks, and other defects in reactors, pipelines and other structures.

Equipment used by the nuclear power, oil and gas, and aerospace industries - from reactors to pipelines - requires frequent inspections to make sure that defects don’t compromise function.

Pipelines, for example, need to be inspected for internal corrosion and aerospace components need to be inspected for defects not visible with the human eye. Non-destructive testing (NDT) methods aim to provide quality data regarding the condition of engineered structures with as little disruption to the structure and business as possible.

In 2014, Dr Chenghaun Zhong, Professor Paul Wilcox and Dr Anthony Croxford of the Ultrasonics and Non-destructive Testing research group in the Faculty of Engineering filed a patent for innovative new technology, which now underpins the unique wireless ultrasonic sensors that are being commercialised, through spin-out company Inductosense. 

Permanent, embeddable and fast

The sensors can be embedded within the structure and, when coupled to a handheld probe, provide measurements on thickness, corrosion, cracks, and other defects - which could help lower costs associated with these inspections, particularly for very large and/or remote structures. 

What makes these sensors unique within the market is that they are compact, battery-free and wireless and can therefore be permanently embedded into structures, or beneath layers such as insulation, coatings or composite repairs.

The power source lies within the accompanying handheld probe, which couples to the sensor and subsequently takes a measurement. This system means that data can be collected from the same location on a structure and changes, such as corrosion, monitored over time. There is also less room for human error and measurements can be made easily in less than a second.

Within a year of starting, Inductosense has secured revenue through the launch of a Wireless and Non-Destructive (WAND) Evaluation System, particularly suited for measuring thickness across structures. Potential customers are using this Evaluation System to determine how it might be incorporated into their business practices.

The path to commercialisation

After the first patent was filed in 2014, Zhong and the team were awarded a place in the ICURe Innovation-to-Commercialisation programme, which provides support to evaluate the market potential for developing technologies. During the programme, the team spoke with over 100 companies, and they received the training and mentor support needed to develop a business plan.

Zhong, now the Chief Technical Officer at Inductosense, said: “ICURe helped us to understand the market need for our technology and to identify the immediate and easier-to-access opportunities, which subsequently fed into our business plan.”

At the end of the programme, the team applied for Innovate UK funding and were awarded £489,243 to help launch the company, which they did in July 2015. Zhong became the first employee of the company in October 2015.

The Innovate UK funding has helped secure further seed funding and to build the team necessary to take their product out of the lab and into the hands of those who need it. The company currently has four full-time employees, a part-time business development manager and supports three interns.

In June 2016, Dr Matt Butcher, who helped to manage the commercialisation and formation of the business as a member of the University Research and Enterprise Development (RED) team, became the company’s full-time CEO.

“The involvement from RED and the investment we have received to date has helped us form the company, build our team and develop our product,” said Butcher. “We’re now pushing our technology along by working with companies within the nuclear power and oil and gas sectors, to develop specific products that can meet their needs. We’re also looking to secure a round of investment to continue to grow the team and business.”

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