Carbon nanotubes bring tyre wear monitoring into the car

15th June 2017
Lanna Deamer


Electrical engineers at Duke University have invented an inexpensive printed sensor that can monitor the tread of car tyres in real time, warning drivers when the rubber meeting the road has grown dangerously thin.

If adopted, the device will increase safety, improve vehicle performance and reduce fuel consumption. The group hopes that the tyre wear sensor will be the first of many that could disrupt the $2bn tyre and wheel control sensor market.

In collaboration with Fetch Automotive Design Group, the Duke researchers have demonstrated a design using metallic carbon nanotubes (tiny cylinders of carbon atoms just one-billionth of a metre in diameter) that can track millimetre-scale changes in tread depth with 99% accuracy. With two patents pending, the researchers are in the process of establishing industry collaborations to bring the technology to a tyre near you.

"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," said Aaron Franklin, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. "Our tyre tread sensor is the perfect marriage between high-end technology and a simple solution."

In a paper published 9th June in IEEE Sensors Journal, Franklin and his colleagues flesh out their sensor design.

The technology relies on the well understood mechanics of how electric fields interact with metallic conductors. The core of the sensor is formed by placing two small, electrically conductive electrodes very close to each other. By applying an oscillating electrical voltage to one and grounding the other, an electric field forms between the electrodes.

While most of this electric field passes directly between the two electrodes, some of the field arcs between them. When a material is placed on top of the electrodes, it interferes with this so-called 'fringing field'. By measuring this interference through the electrical response of the grounded electrode, it is possible to determine the thickness of the material covering the sensor.

While there is a limit to how thick a material this setup can detect, it is more than enough to encompass the several millimetres of tread found in today's tyres. And with evidence of sub-millimetre resolution, the technology could easily tell drivers when it's time to buy a new set of tyres or give information about uneven and often dangerous tyre wear by connecting many sensors in a grid to cover the width of the tyre.

Tests also proved that the metal mesh embedded within tyres does not disrupt the operation of the new sensors. 

"When we pitch this idea to industry experts, they say to each other, 'Why haven't we tried that before?'" said Franklin. "It seems so obvious once you see it, but that's the way it is with most good inventions."

While the sensor could be made from a variety of materials and methods, the paper explains how the researchers optimised performance by exploring different variables from sensor size and structure to substrate and ink materials. The best results were obtained by printing electrodes made of metallic carbon nanotubes on a flexible polyimide film. Besides providing the best results, the metallic carbon nanotubes are durable enough to survive the harsh environment inside a tyre.

The sensors can be printed on most anything using an aerosol jet printer - even on the inside of the tyres themselves. And, while it is not yet certain that direct printing will be the best manufacturing approach, whatever approach is ultimately used, Franklin said the sensors should cost far less than a penny apiece once they're being made in quantity.

Franklin's group also wants to explore other automotive applications for the printed sensors, such as keeping tabs on the thickness of brake pads or the air pressure within tyres. This is consistent with a key trend in the automotive sector toward using embedded nanosensors.

Other tyre tracking products have recently hit the market. For example, the tyre company Pirelli recently unveiled a system to electronically track each tyre - when it was installed, how many miles it has gone, when it was last serviced, etc. - and use an algorithm to estimate its wear and tear. While not the same thing as actively, physically measuring  tread, it shows that the market is there for this type of information.

But the technology isn't limited to cars.

"This setup could be used with just about anything that isn't metallic or too thick," said Franklin. "Right now we're focussing on tyres, but really anything you'd rather not have to cut apart to determine its thickness could be monitored by this technology in real time."

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