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Power Plant Safety: From Pipe Dream to Reality

National Science Foundation awards University of Pittsburgh’s Piero Rizzo $360K to develop a corrosion sensor for preventing pipeline disasters

PITTSBURGH (August 30, 2018) … A new technology able to detect potentially dangerous conditions in power plants is in the pipeline at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, thanks to a $360,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The device monitors corrosion and erosion in pipelines that, if left undetected, can lead to catastrophic explosions.

Piervincenzo (Piero) Rizzo, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, is the principal investigator. The project titled “A new sensing device for disaster prevention and biomedical application” (Award No.: 1809932) will target, at its initial stage, pipes operating at high temperatures in which deterioration poses serious threats and visual inspection presents challenges.

“Aging pipelines in petrochemical or nuclear power plants can cause structural failures and safety concerns, not only for workers but also people in surrounding areas,” says Dr. Rizzo. “Currently, humans are responsible for maintenance and inspection. However, the pipes can fail between inspections, human inspection is costly and often inconsistent, and plants may need to be shut down entirely during inspection, slowing down productivity.”

Corrosion accounted for 16 percent of pipeline-related incidents and nearly $48 million in damages in 2017, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The data accounts for pipelines in natural gas, hazardous liquid, and liquefied natural gas plants.

The main objective of the project is to develop a device that works continuously and remotely and is able to transmit relevant data wirelessly. Research gathered for the grant proposal suggests the device will be able to monitor deterioration in pipes operating at any temperature and at any location, above or below ground.

“The device is based on the propagation of highly nonlinear solitary waves along a chain of spherical particles in contact to the outside surface of the pipe. We send a wave of energy through the particles and bounce it off the pipe. Changes in the wave’s shape over time reflect changes in the thickness of the pipe walls, inferring the occurrence of erosion or corrosion,” explains Dr. Rizzo.

“Highly nonlinear solitary waves along have found many applications because they are fundamentally different than those waves typically encountered in acoustics and ultrasound,” he added. 

In his lab, Dr. Rizzo’s basic set up of the device consists of steel ball bearings about the size of gumballs aligned vertically or along an L-shaped in a plastic tube. The device can measure, for example, the internal pressure of a tennis ball simply by placing the tube against the ball and passing a wave through it.

“This research will focus on validating the science behind our device and testing different materials and configurations to get the best results,” Dr. Rizzo says. “We will also be looking at other applications for the technology. For example, in a much smaller iteration, we could use the device to monitor eye pressure in individuals with or at risk for developing glaucoma.”

He explains, “Glaucoma is an age-related disease and the second leading cause of blindness in the world. The risk of developing glaucoma surges when the intraocular pressure (IOP) increases due to abnormal balance between the production and drainage of the fluid inside the eye. The measurement of IOP is the cornerstone of the diagnosis and management of glaucoma because elevated IOP is the only risk factor that can be modified through invasive surgery.”

For this project, Dr. Rizzo and his collaborators will also research and develop a numerical model to link the solitary waves to the IOP.

Co-principal investigators Samuel Dickerson and Ian Conner will join Dr. Rizzo on the study. Dr. Dickerson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, specializes in the electronic development of sensors and will develop a sensor to collect the wave data from the device. Dr. Conner, assistant professor of ophthalmology and bioengineering, is an eye care professional with experience in glaucoma and cataract surgery and will advise the team.


About Dr. Rizzo
Dr. Rizzo is widely recognized for his expertise in nondestructive testing and evaluation (NDT/E) and in structural health monitoring (SHM). He is the only person worldwide who has received both the Achenbach Medal (2012) and the SHM Person of the Year Award (2015). The Medal recognizes one young researcher who has made an outstanding contribution to the SHM. The Award recognizes “outstanding contribution to the field of SHM that will benefit society.” Both honors are selected by the editors of SHM, an International Journal, the top journal in the field. 

In 2016, Dr. Rizzo received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Scholar Award, in the category of junior scholar. This is the most esteemed award that Pitt gives to its own faculty. In July 2018, the international scientific committee of the European Workshop on SHM (EWSHM) selected the proposal of Dr. Rizzo to organize and chair the 10th edition of the workshop (EWSHM 2020). This Workshop is held every two years in Europe, and it congregates experts from all over the world to discuss the latest advancements in the area of SHM, smart materials, intelligent infrastructures, and NDE. The 2020 Workshop will be held at the University of Palermo, Italy, Dr. Rizzo’s Alma Mater. He won the competition against Berlin, Paris, and Prague—a testament to the leadership and professional stature that Dr. Rizzo has in the SHM community.

Author: Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

Contact: Matt Cichowicz