MIT labs just unveiled its latest technological breakthrough — a brand new kind of material that combines optical fiber technology and piezoelectrics, meaning it can actually sense pressure changes against it. The wonder fibers have a myriad of applications – from intelligent garments that can monitor the body to structural sensors that can detect even the smallest stresses on a building, to self-powered medical devices small enough to fit in the smallest crevices.
It’s not the first time the MIT team has developed heat and light-sensitive fibers. The new part is that they’ve now added piezoelectric functionality to these materials allowing them to convert mechanical energy into electrical signals and then back again.
But it wasn’t easy for the team. Led by Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Yoel Fink, the team achieved their previous success with heat and light-sensitive fibers by devising a method of layering them into a thick “perform” cylinder, and then heating and stretching them into a long, thin strand. Keep in mind that in order to do that, all of the materials involved have to melt and stretch at similar temperatures – including the new piezoelectric layer.
The team was finally able to combine their earlier materials with the new piezoelectric layer, creating a fiber that carries both light and electricity. The new multifunctional material has far-reaching applications from making miniscule biosensors to tiny ultrasound imagers. We’re particularly interested in the fibers’ ability to “feel” feather-pressure stresses and what that could mean for monitoring earthquakes and other structural instabilities.