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In March 2020, the Hon Karen Andrews announced $21 million in funding for the ANFF-supported SmartCrete CRC, which aims to reduce the cost of concrete and improve productivity of one of the most heavily used building materials in the world.

Concrete might not seem glamourous to an outsider, but its use underpins much of the infrastructure needed for the modern world.

SmartCrete plans to guarantee the long-term viability of concrete infrastructure in Australia by pursuing three major program initiatives – providing new engineering solutions, improving the sustainability and environmental attributes of cement structures, and by creating technologies that allow better management of concrete assets.

The CRC will be particularly relying on ANFF equipment and expertise to assist its pursuit of novel sensing components that can be built into concrete structures such as skyscrapers and sewers. The improved information provided by these sensors will mean that fewer people have to enter dangerous environments and ensure long-term accurate monitoring of a structure’s integrity.

One of the most advanced projects in the SmartCrete portfolio is a corrosion monitoring device being developed by Macquarie University researchers. This sensor tracks damage to the walls of a concrete sewer by feeding out information about the temperature and humidity in the sewer headspace allowing engineers to predict when interventions will be needed.

These sensors are based on mature Fibre Bragg Grating (FBG) technology and made by creating arrays of microscale features in commercially available fibre optic cables. The team, led by Dr Martin Ams, creates the sensing elements using a femtosecond laser that is part of ANFF OptoFab’s laser machining and inscription suite.

When light is passed down the fibre, these gratings reflect a precise wavelength that is dependent on the spacing of the features. If the size of the fibre were to change, perhaps contracting due to the glass becoming colder, the distribution of these features alters with it and therefore a different wavelength is reflected. The device is consequently able to observe changes in the integrity of the concrete by monitoring the variations in returning light.

Devices of this type have already been installed at a number of Sydney Water wastewater treatment plants and have shown a lifetime exceeding 14 months, outperforming conventional electrical sensors which only survive a number of days in these harsh environments.

Dr Martin Ams said: “SmartCrete CRC will provide an avenue for increased uptake of such sensors, especially into the concrete sector, with asset management being the forefront research program to capitalise on their advantages.”

“With funding secured, we now plan to drive down the cost of the sensor interrogation system and roll out sensing installations not only throughout Australia’s concrete wastewater network but also across other concrete-based industries.”