Virginia Tech has high-level activities in the development of sensors for harsh environments, super-sensitive optical sensors, polymers and optical materials, and computer visualization/simulation of material microstructures. The university is a pioneer in developing "smart" materials, nanostructured materials, microelectronic materials, and coatings.
The Center for Intelligent Material Systems and Structures is focused on the design and modeling of devices to monitor the health of materials used in aerospace and civil structures and reduce vibration through the use of smart structures. Sponsors include NASA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Lear Corporation, and NSF.
The Center for Self-Assembled Nano Devices has achieved international prominence by creating novel molecules for nanotechnology applications. The focus is controlling supramolecular architecture (self-assembly) at the atomic and molecular level. Potential applications include: nano-composites, nano-robotics, new drugs and drug delivery systems, chemical catalysts, opto-electronic devices, biosensors, organic solar cells, and quantum computers. One spin-off company is exploring medical applications, such as more efficient MRI materials — a worldwide billion-dollar industry.
Other centers working on materials include:
Problem: Oil well pump sensors last only 300 hours
Solution: Develop a sensor that is tiny and tough
The harsh environment of an oil well has temperatures up to 400 degrees F., pressures up to 20,000 psi, and a hydrocarbon-water mixture. Once a sensor fails, it is impossible to replace because of the high cost of bringing the pump to the surface.
Virginia Tech's Center for Photonics Technology developed a fiber optic sensor system that is the diameter of a human hair. It can be hydraulically deployed through a tube and retrieved without pulling the wellhead. The sensor requires no down-hole electronics or electrical power. Light is sent the length of the fiber to the sensor and reflected back. The message is extracted from the light signal using a PC plug-in card.
According to the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the fiber generates "an impressive range of real-time production logging data."
The sensor received R&D Magazine's 2003 award as one of the 100 most technogically significant new products.