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How new ‘super’ sensors could make mining safer

Spider-Man may have spidey-senses, but they are no match for Dr Toan Dinh’s ‘super’ sensors.
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Like Peter Parker’s superhero ability to sense imminent danger, Dr Dinh’s sensors are designed to help prevent injury and death on mining sites by detecting early mechanical issues in oil and gas pipelines.

The sensors’ extraordinary ability to withstand harsh and corrosive environments has even caught the attention of NASA.

Dr Dinh, a mechanical engineer at the University of Southern Queensland, has spent the past six years developing the sensors, which are made of silicon carbide.

He said they are five to 100 times smaller than the width of a single human hair and perform a thousand times better than conventional sensors.

“The current silicon technology can’t be used in harsh environments because they can’t survive a long time in conditions of high temperature and corrosion,” Dr Dinh said.

“The sensors I have developed can operate in up to 600 degrees Celsius for a wide range of applications, including oil and gas industries and aerospace technologies.”

Oil and gas exploration and production sites are some of the most dangerous workplaces on the planet due to the risk of fires and explosions.

“It is critically important we make working conditions safer for miners and more efficient,” Dr Dinh said.

“My sensors can detect and measure the tiniest of movements in the environment, as well as monitor in real-time the structural health of a system, such as a pipeline, in case there is any changes or faults.

“This can help prevent a major system failure from occurring, not only reducing maintenance costs but potentially avert a catastrophic situation that could lead to injury or death.”

Dr Dinh recently received a $440,675 grant under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award scheme to further develop his research.

It will also enable him to travel to California where he will collaborate with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to look at how the sensors could be used in space exploration.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity and a great chance to focus on improving the technology’s performance so it can operate in more environments and applications,” Dr Dinh said.

“My goal is to start testing the sensors in real industry conditions as early as this year before they are ready for commercialisation.”

The ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award scheme provides more focused support for researchers and creates more opportunities for early-career researchers in both teaching and research, and research-only positions in Australia.

man smiling at the camera in a business shirt
University of Southern Queensland mechanical engineer Dr Toan Dinh.