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December 1, 2003 -- Researchers at the University of California , San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering have been awarded nearly $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a new structural material with embedded sensing capabilities. Principal investigator and Jacobs School professor Sia Nemat-Nasser will integrate this latest project into his ongoing efforts to create a strong structural material with self-healing and tunable electromagnetic properties.

“We plan to take the concept of a multifunctional material a step further by weaving micro-chips – or miniature sensors with on-board data processors – and copper wire into a braided, fiber-reinforced polymeric composite,” says Nemat-Nasser. “The embedded sensors could help detect such things as damage, unsafe conditions, the operating environment or other external factors, as well as collect data on the structure's overall status.”

In ongoing work, Nemat-Nasser has already created a material that exhibits self-healing properties. “This composite material contains a chemically manufactured polymer matrix that can re-polymerize its broken covalent bonds and heal at the molecular level,” explains Nemat-Nasser. The same thin strands of woven copper that link the embedded sensors also provide electrical and thermal conductivity and increase the rate of polymerization as heat circulates through the material. Strong and lightweight Kevlar fibers in the composite are also affected by the rise in temperature, acting like a paperclip as they contract and put pressure on the matrix.

In early laboratory demonstrations, Nemat-Nasser showed that after fracturing the polymer, the material bonds back together. “The material covalently rebonded in a matter of hours, and it continued to polymerize and grow in strength – actually getting better with age.”

Another benefit of the copper wire is its electromagnetic effect, creating the potential to make composite materials friendly to wireless communications.

“The material can be made to have an index of refraction equal to one for a given wavelength, which means that a electromagnetic signal sent and received through the material would not see the material, and therefore not be distorted by refraction,” explains Nemat-Nasser. For example, radio signals sent from a transmitter housed in the nose of an airplane can become distorted by the surrounding material. This new fiber reinforced polymeric composite could be specifically tuned to eliminate this problem.

Nemat-Nasser foresees this multifunctional material being used to increase the safety, performance and functionality of military vehicles, aircraft, buildings and bridges. And due to the material's braided construction, the potential exists to create textiles with a number of applications, such as deployable space structures that can be packaged and then expanded once in orbit. Nemat-Nasser and his collaborators are in the process of creating the multifunctional material and testing its components, and anticipate the creation of a working prototype in 2004.

To learn more about the Jacobs School 's Center for Excellence of Advanced Materials (CEAM), headed by Nemat-Nasser, go to

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Media Contacts:
    Troy Anderson , , 858-822-3075

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