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Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering
Robust Flexible Capacitive Surface Sensor for
Structural Health Monitoring Applications
Simon Lafamme
Iowa State University,
Mathais Kollosche
Universität Potsdam
Jerome J. Connor
Universität Potsdam
Guggi Kofod
Universität Potsdam
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Robust Flexible Capacitive Surface Sensor for Structural Health 1
Monitoring Applications 2
Simon Laflamme
Matthias Kollosche
Jerome J. Connor
Guggi Kofod
Early detection of possible defects in civil infrastructure is vital to ensure timely mainte- 5
nance and extend structure life expectancy. A novel method for structural health monitoring 6
based on soft capacitors was recently proposed by the authors. The sensor consisted of an 7
off-the-shelf flexible capacitor that could be easily deployed over large surfaces, with the 8
main advantages of being cost-effective, easy to install, and allowing simple signal process- 9
ing. In this paper, a capacitive sensor with tailored mechanical and electrical properties is 10
presented, resulting in a greatly improved robustness while retaining measurement sensitiv- 11
ity. The sensor is fabricated from a thermoplastic elastomer mixed with titanium dioxide, 12
then covered with conductive composite electrodes. Experimental verifications conducted on 13
wood and concrete specimens demonstrate the improved robustness, as well as the ability of 14
the sensing method to diagnose and locate strain. 15
Keywords: structural health monitoring, strain monitoring, capacitive sensor, dielectric 16
polymer, stretchable sensor, flexible membrane, sensing skin 17
Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, Iowa State University, Ames, IA,
Applied Condensed-Matter Physics, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam, D-14476
Potsdam, Germany
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge,
MA, 02139 USA
Applied Condensed-Matter Physics, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam, D-14476
Potsdam, Germany
Structural health monitoring (SHM), defined as methods for damage diagnosis and local- 19
ization, is expected to play a predominant role in management of large-scale infrastructure. 20
Their long lifespan, often combined with insufficient maintenance and increased utilization, 21
enhances the risks associated with their failure (Karbhari 2009; Harms et al. 2010). In the 22
U.S., the number of bridges classified as in need of repairs, due either to deficiency or obso- 23
lescence, is excessive, and estimated costs of repairs is beyond 2 trillions USD (Mason et al. 24
2009; Simon et al. 2010). Timely maintenance and inspection programs are essential in 25
improving health and ensuring safety of civil infrastructure (Brownjohn 2007), consequently 26
enhancing their sustainability. 27
The complexity of damage diagnosis and localization in large-scale infrastructure arises 28
from their inherent size, which impacts monitoring solutions both technically and economi- 29
cally. Damage localization techniques, such as non-destructive evaluation using pulse-echo, 30
dynamic response, or acoustic emission, are too expensive to deploy over the entire moni- 31
tored infrastructure for complete monitoring. In fact, known complete SHM systems rapidly 32
become economically unfeasible as the scale is increased. 33
The authors recently proposed a novel monitoring technique for civil structures (Laflamme 34
et al. 2012a), the sensing skin, consisting of soft elastomeric capacitors arranged in a matrix 35
form which could be deployed over an entire structure. This low-cost approach is capable 36
of discretely monitoring changes in strain over large areas without compromising structural 37
integrity, a combination of properties hardly found in other SHM technologies. It is anal- 38
ogous to biological skin, where local changes can be monitored over an entire surface, and 39
therefore represents one possible solution to the complexity of applying damage localization 40
methods globally. 41
The skin-type property of bio-inspired sensing methods arises from the use of flexi- 42
ble films, for which elastomeric substrates are common (Lumelsky et al. 2001). For in- 43
stance, Harrey et al. (Harrey et al. 2002) researched a humidity sensor using polymide and 44
polyethersulphone (PES) substrates. Zhang et al. (Zhang et al. 2003) and Hurlebaus & Gaul 45
(Hurlebaus and Gaul 2004) developed sensor skins using polyvinylidene (PVDF) substrates. 46
Carlson et al. (Carlson et al. 2006) and Tata et al. (Tata et al. 2009) opted for a poly- 47
imide substrate. Lipomi et al. (Lipomi et al. 2011) developed a stretchable capacitor made 48
from conducting spray-deposited films of single-walled carbon nanotubes on polydimethyl- 49
siloxane (PDMS). Carbon nanotubes have also been used as resistance-based strain sensors 50
(Gao et al. 2010), and for damage localization by measuring changes in electrical impedance 51
tomographical conductivity (Loh et al. 2009). Here, carbon nanotubes (carbon black) are 52
added to the SEBS substrate to form the sensor electrodes. 53
Other bio-inspired solutions have been proposed using stiff ceramic piezoelectric (PZT) 54
sensors. Often used in civil engineering for dynamic strain measurements (Zhang et al. 55
2003; Lin et al. 2009; Giurgiutiu 2009), PZT patches can be arranged in an array to form 56
piezoelectric wafer active sensors (PWAS), which allows damage localization (Zhang 2005; 57
Yu and Giurgiutiu 2009; Zagrai et al. 2010; Yu et al. 2011). Fiber optic-based health 58
monitoring techniques are also commonly used in the field. Their concept is analogous to a 59
nervous system, where fiber optic sensors can be deployed linearly for damage localization. 60
Large-scale deployments of fiber optic systems have been studied in Ref. (Chen et al. 2005; 61
Zou et al. 2006; Lin et al. 2007). 62
Previously, the sensing skin was constructed using a commercially available silicone 63
elastomer-type material (Danfoss PolyPower
) with pre-defined smart metallic electrodes. 64
Results showed that the sensing solution was promising at monitoring large-scale surfaces, 65
capable of both detecting and localizing cracks on concrete specimens (Laflamme et al. 2010; 66
Laflamme et al. 2012a). Despite these promising results, practical issues arose due to the 67
concurrence of relatively low stiffness and thickness (80 µm) of the sensing material. In the 68
experiments presented by the authors in Ref. (Laflamme et al. 2012a), practical challenges 69
arose in the electrical contact on the electrodes, and small surface features on the tested 70
concrete specimens sometime led to tears in the sensing patches. Also, a few months after 71
the experiments were conducted and the results published, the authors noticed degradation 72
of the silver electrodes due to environmental condition. These issues inspired the authors’ 73
efforts to develop a robust capacitive-based sensor using the same monitoring principle, with 74
the objective to improve the applicability, robustness, and life cycle of the sensing technology 75
for broad implementation onto civil infrastructure. 76
As it will be demonstrated in this paper, the replacement of materials results in a greatly 77
enhanced robustness, a fundamental property for SHM solutions applied to civil infras- 78
tructure. Here, both the dielectric elastomer and the sensing electrodes are replaced with 79
nanocomposites based on a thermoplastic elastomer and the sensor itself has a higher thick- 80
ness. It follows that this paper also demonstrates the generality of the sensing principle, and 81
the practical opportunities for improving the technology. 82
The paper is organized as follows. The next section describes the robust capacitive-based 83
sensor. The sensing principle is discussed, the sensor fabrication process is briefly described, 84
and the proposed sensor is verified. The subsequent section verifies the measurement method 85
in a laboratory setup. Here, the sensor robustness is demonstrated, along with its capacity 86
to diagnose and locate damages on wood and concrete specimens. The last section concludes 87
the paper. 88
Sensing Principle 90
The sensing skin consists of several individual capacitive sensors, termed sensing patches, 91
which can have individually shaped areas. A single sensing patch is constructed using a soft 92
incompressible polymer membrane covered by highly compliant and stretchable electrodes 93
to form a stretchable capacitor. 94
The capacitance C of such a sensing patch depends on the surface area A, the thickness 95
d, the vacuum permittivity
, and the permittivity of the polymer
: 96
C =

A/d (1)
The change in the geometry of the capacitor due to deformation is directly related to its 97
capacitance, allowing measurement of high precision strain responses. 98
Fig. 1 illustrates a sensor patch deployed over a monitored surface. In the figure, a crack 99
causes a change ∆A in the sensor area, which can be measured as a change in capacitance 100
(Laflamme et al. 2010; Kollosche et al. 2011). A differential measurement mode can also be 101
employed in which two sensors are compared directly (Laflamme et al. 2010). 102
Sensor Fabrication 103
The dielectric material for the capacitive sensor is a nanocomposite with soft dielectric 104
elastomer and ceramic insulating nanoparticles. The elastomer matrix is poly-styrene-co- 105
ethylene-co-butylene-co-styrene, (SEBS - Dryflex 500120, ρ = 930 kg/m
), provided by VTC 106
Elastoteknik AB (Sweden). The incompressible thermoplastic SEBS is a soluble tri-block 107
copolymer, which forms a reversible physically crosslinked elastomer network (Laurer et al. 108
1996). The initial stiffness of the SEBS is Y = 312 kPa (Kollosche et al. 2009) and the 109
permittivity of the pure material is
= 2.2 (McCarthy et al. 2009). In this study the 110
handling and robustness of the capacitive sensors is improved by increasing the sensor film 111
thickness in the range of 200 µm to 400 µm. The increase in thickness leads to a reduction in 112
basic capacitance (Eq. (1)), which can be adjusted by increasing the permittivity
through 113
addition of nanoparticles. The authors have demonstrated a significant sensing enhancement, 114
approximately 46 times, aimed towards sensing skin for robots; this was achieved by grafting 115
a small amount of highly polarizable polyaniline (PANI) on the matrix elastomer backbone 116
to form a molecular composite (Stoyanov et al. 2010; Kollosche et al. 2011). 117
Here, an elastic nanocomposite of SEBS and ceramic nanoparticles of rutile titanium 118
dioxide TiO
(R 320 D, ρ = 4200 kg/m
, Sachtleben Chemie GmbH, Germany) is proposed 119
to form a soft capacitive-based sensor for direct application to health monitoring of civil 120
infrastructure. The nanoparticles have an average diameter of 300 nm, a static dielectric 121
constant of = 128, and are coated with a silicon oil. This coating facilitates the dispersion 122
of the nanoparticles in the SEBS matrix, which improves the mechanical and dielectric prop- 123
erties of the composite (Stoyanov et al. 2011). The fabrication of the dielectric membrane 124
is as follows: 125
1. Two SEBS/toluene solutions are prepared by dissolving the polymer at concentrations 126
of 200 g/L and 300 g/L. 127
2. A mass of TiO
particles is weighed to obtain a concentration of 15%vol of the pre- 128
pared elastomer solutions. The TiO
is added to the dissolved elastomer and stored 129
in an ultra sonic bath for 1 hr to homogenize the mixture. The nanoparticles are 130
dispersed in the polymer solution using an ultra-sonic tip (high intensity ultrasonic 131
processor Vibracell 75041, Sonics & Materials Inc.,USA). The dispersion of the TiO
particles within the polymer matrix is investigated for selected samples using scanning 133
electron microscopy (SEM) (Zeiss Ultra 55+, cryo-fracture with 5 nm sputtered Au, 134
2.0 kV). Fig. 2 shows the dispersion of the nanoparticles within the polymer matrix. 135
3. The polymer concentrations are drop-casted from solution on glass slides and covered 136
to control the evaporation rate. The samples are left to dry on a heat plate at 50

C 137
for 24 hr and then stored in an oven at 50

C for 4 more days to allow evaporation of 138
the remaining solvent. 139
4. All membranes are visual inspected and the thicknesses are measured using a mi- 140
crometer screw at randomly selected locations. Membranes with inhomogeneities 141
or varying thicknesses are discarded. The selected polymer concentrations result in 142
thicknesses of approximately 200 µm or 400 µm. 143
5. The membrane are peeled of from the glass slides and equipped with plastic masks on 144
both sides to define an area of dimension 70 × 70 mm for application of the electrodes 145
(Fig. 3(a)). 146
Subsequent to the fabrication of the elastomeric membrane, stretchable electrodes are 147
applied on both surfaces of the doped polymer. These elastic electrodes are made of carbon 148
black (CB) (Printex XE 2-B) particles dispersed in SEBS solution. The fabrication of the 149
electrodes is as follows: 150
1. A batch of SEBS/toluene solution is prepared by dissolving the polymer at a concen- 151
tration of 400 g/L, followed by the incorporation of the CB for a final concentration 152
of 15%vol. 153
2. The CB solution is stored in an ultra sonic bath for 2 hrs to disperse the CB. The 154
solution is sonicated with a ultra-sonic tip for 10 min and stored a second time in the 155
ultra sonic bath for 2 hrs to homogenize. 156
3. A mask is applied to the membrane to define an area of approximately 70 × 70 mm. 157
(Fig. 3(a)). The conductive elastomer solution is brushed onto the membrane, and let 158
drying for 20 min . The process is repeated onto the other side. Because the solvents 159
used to fabricate the membrane and the electrodes are identical, the CB solution is 160
coalesced with the dielectric membrane, forming a uniform conductive layer. 161
The completed process gives a highly stretchable capacitor of known dimensions, shown 162
in Fig. 3(b). The prepared sample is attached to plastic frames equipped with aluminum 163
strips to form electrical connections. The resistance of the electrodes is verified using a 164
circuit analyzer. Typical values range between 2-10 kΩ. Finally, the relative permittivity of 165
elastic nanocomposite is backtracked from the capacitive measurement performed with an 166
LCR meter (HP 4284A, sampling rate of 100 s
) and the dimension of the capacitor. The 167
permittivity of the materials ranges between
= 6.5−7, in agreement with results obtained 168
for well dispersed particles at identical volume concentration (Stoyanov et al. 2011). 169
Experimental verification of a sensing patch 170
The strain sensing properties of a sensing patch were determined in a tensile tester 171
(Zwick Roell Z005) combined with a capacitance meter (LCR meter, HP 4284A, sampling 172
rate of 100 s
). These experiments were performed using a direct capacitance measurement 173
mode, where the capacitance is measured directly for a freestanding sample, in opposition 174
to a differential measurement mode, where the differential capacitance between two sensors 175
is measured directly. A sample was clamped into the tensile tester on the frame pieces, 176
and metallic leads were connected to the capacitance meter using shielded cable to record 177
the change in capacitance under variation in strain. The sample was stored in an oven to 178
avoid variation in ambient conditions, and pre-strained to approximately 5% of its initial 179
length while the electrodes retained their conductivity. The capacitive measurements were 180
performed far below of the cut off frequency to avoid any influence of changes in resistance 181
or capacitance on the sensing electronics (RC behavior). Remark: local strain is transduced 182
by a variation in capacitance of the dielectric membrane, not by a variation in resistance of 183
the electrodes. 184
An experiment was also conducted in which parts of the sensing materials have been 185
removed using a regular hole punch (see Fig. 4(b)). The sample was placed on a stack of 186
paper, then punched through with the hole punch. The diameter of the hole was 14 mm. 187
Afterwards, the sample was characterized as described. Remark that the sample capaci- 188
tance was 692.7 pF before the hole was punched, and 667.8 pF after. The capacitance of 189
the removed section was 23.8 pF, for a total of 691.6 pF, which is almost identical to the 190
initial value. This is an indication that the film can survive this disruptive procedure while 191
conserving its sensing properties almost intact. 192
The sensor capacitance with respect to strain is shown in Fig 5 for a time history of 193
increasing strain targets (unfiltered data). Measurements are presented for a freestanding 194
sensor, and for the same sensor after the 14 mm hole was punched through it. Both curves 195
clearly show a capacitive response to the variation in strain. Already at about 0.00001% 196
(0.1 ppm) strain, jumps in the capacitive signal can be discerned, and above 0.2 ppm the 197
signal raises well above the noise. Here, 0.1 ppm corresponds to approximately 0.750 µm. 198
The hole punched through the sample does not affect the sensing properties, the signal 199
appears to be as responsive as before the intrusive procedure. This experiment demonstrates 200
the high level of the sensor robustness with respect to controlled mechanical tempering. 201
An obvious feature of both capacitive curves is the baseline drift, which is as large as the 202
signal. The authors suggest that these drifts could be caused by the impact of relaxation 203
behavior due to pre-stretching of the free-standing sensor. A successful use of these sensors 204
must therefore take these drifts into account. In what follows, the differential capacitance 205
measurement mode is used, with the benefits to cancel out measurement drifts and envi- 206
ronmental impacts (e.g. changes in temperature and humidity), similar to bridge circuits in 207
resistance-based strain gauges (Hannah and Reed 1992). 208
The sensing method is tested on wood and concrete specimens using the differential 210
capacitance measurement mode, where the change in capacitance between two adjacent 211
patches is measured directly. This way, strain (e.g. cracks) can be localized among several 212
patches. 213
The objective of the tests discussed in this section is to demonstrate that the novel flexible 214
membrane is robust, and capable of detecting and localizing damages. First, a robustness 215
test is conducted by damaging the sensor. Then, experiments employing one differential 216
patch set on wood specimens are presented. Finally, four patches are installed on a concrete 217
beam to demonstrate two independent patch sets, enabling a sensing solution capable of 218
localizing cracks. 219
Experimental Setup 220
The newly developed sensing patches are shown in Fig. 6 glued to a concrete beam. Each 221
individual patch was connected at two corners using electrical connectors, which were glued 222
using the previously described electrode solution. Each single patch covers an area of 80 × 223
80 mm (3.15 × 3.15 in) with an active sensing area of 70 × 70 mm (2.75 × 2.75 in). The 224
wood and concrete specimens were sanded, then a primer was brushed on the surface and 225
allowed to dry. The sensor patches were glued to this area and smoothed by hand (which 226
may cause a slight prestretch). The glue was a two-component epoxy. Electrical connectivity 227
could easily be established using wires and clips. 228
The wood specimens were mounted on an Instron servo-hydraulic testing machine, while 229
experiments on concrete beams were performed using a Baldwin universal compression/tension 230
machine with an Admit computer control servo hydraulic system. Each differential sensor 231
pair was attached to an ACAM PSA21-CAP signal comparison amplifier, which was con- 232
nected directly to the measurement computer. The sampling rate was set to 10 s
. Remarks: 233
the ACAM PSA21-CAP outputs the differential capacitance between two capacitors. Thus, 234
it is not possible to obtain plots of individual sensors. Also, while the ACAM PSA21-CAP 235
is an inexpensive data acquisition system, the use of this equipment involves wiring of the 236
sensors, which decreases applicability of the sensing method. However, development of im- 237
proved electronics will result in fewer wires, and ultimately allows wireless data acquisition 238
of several patches using a single data acquisition system (Laflamme et al. 2012b). 239
Robustness Test 240
Here, the sensor robustness with respect to physical damages (e.g. caused during the 241
installation or vandalism) is verified experimentally. During the experiment, five long cuts 242
were made into one patch (a short cut followed by four cuts running over approximately 243
50% of the patch length, see Fig. 7(a)). The change in differential capacitance after each cut 244
stabilized immediately (Fig. 7(b)), demonstrating that the sensor was still operational. 245
Strain and Crack Detection on a Wood Specimens 246
A set of experiments have been conducted on wood specimens of dimension 185 × 185 × 247
38 mm (7.25 × 7.25 × 1.5 in). Each test consisted of inducing a flexural crack in the specimen 248
using a three-point load setup, under constant displacement at a rate of 0.500 mm/min until 249
failure. For these tests, the reference sensing patch of identical geometry and comparable 250
capacitance was not glued to the beam, but placed nearby as shown in Fig. 8(d). The 251
measurement setup is shown in Fig. 8(b), showing the sensing patch glued to the bottom- 252
center of the wood specimen. Tests have been conducted on a total of five specimens. 253
Fig. 8(a) shows a typical result (sensor data are filtered). During the experiment, the sen- 254
sor was capable of detecting the crack before it caused failure of the specimen, as illustrated 255
by the two jumps in the differential capacitance measurements. These two jumps indicate 256
the initial deformation of the sensor resulting from the formation of the crack and secondary 257
impulsive expansion of the crack at failure. The decrease in the sensor capacitance after fail- 258
ure corresponds well with a recovery of the sensor after the specimen was unloaded. After 259
unloading, the measured differential signal change reported by the PSA21-CAP was 28.3%. 260
Remark that the direction of the capacitance signal, in this case positive with increasing 261
strain, depends on the pole connections with respect to the reference sensor. Fig. 8(c) shows 262
the cracked specimen. This crack detection test has been successfully repeated on the four 263
additional specimens. 264
The sensor capability to measure a quasi-static strain history can be determined by 265
computing the correlation capacitance-load, as the load-curvature relationship can be ap- 266
proximated as linear in the case of the 3-point load setup for small deformations. Table ?? 267
lists the regression study for the load-capacitance relationship before the formation of the 268
first crack. Specimens 1-2 used thin sensing patches while specimens 3-5 used thick sensing 269
patches. All samples depicted a good fit in the linear regression (R
), showing that the 270
sensor accurately captured the change in curvature of the beam. Thin samples exhibited 271
a larger variance, which can be explained by the higher sensitivity associated with smaller 272
thicknesses d. 273
Strain and Crack Detection on a Concrete Beam 274
A second set of experiments have been conducted on a medium-scale concrete beam of 275
dimension 1370 × 90 × 150 mm (54 × 3.5 × 6 in). The objective was to test the capacity of 276
the nanocomposite sensor to both detect and localize cracks. Four sensing patches have been 277
installed in a matrix arrangement to form a sensing skin, using a vertical pattern. The sensing 278
patches were organized in pairs in order to measure changes in differential capacitance, one 279
pair at the extremities (sensor 1), and one pair in the middle (sensor 2). Fig. 6 illustrates 280
the monitored surface of the bottom flange of the beam, along with the location of the 281
comparative sensing patches. The sensor patches were applied off-center to avoid regions 282
of constant differential curvature. The localization of two comparative patches with respect 283
to each other in the differential capacitance measurement mode does not affect the sensing 284
accuracy. For enhanced precision on strain localization, the differential capacitance can 285
be measured between all sensors. Such additional precision was out of the scope of this 286
experimental campaign. 287
Flexural cracks were induced using a four-point load setup, with a constant load rate of 288
6000 N/min, until failure of the beam. Remark: the failure mode was in shear, thus not 289
reflected in the measurements. This is a consequence of the underlying pedagogic purpose of 290
the beam failure experiment, which was performed in the context of an undergraduate class. 291
Fig. 9 (a) plots the differential capacitance measurements for both sets of sensors against 292
time, and Fig. 9 (b) shows the cracked specimen at the end of the test, where the sensing 293
patches have been removed while the beam was loaded to verify the final locations of the 294
cracks. A first substantial jump in the measurements is observed with sensor 1, at the 295
beginning of the experiment (less than 100 sec). That jump indicates the formation of a 296
crack (crack 1) at the extremity of the sensor patches. The crack was visually observable at 297
that time. A second jump in the measurement curve can also be seen, which coincides with 298
the formation of two additional cracks (cracks 2a and 2b) which could have been formed 299
simultaneously, along with a symmetrical crack (crack 2c) monitored by the second set of 300
sensors. The small jumps in sensor 1 measurements and the slope in sensor 2 measurements 301
probably result from a combination of the slow expansion of the cracks and the increasing 302
beam curvature. At the end of the sensor 2 curve (after 900 sec), there is a significant jump 303
in the data, which coincided with the formation of a third crack (crack 3) that was visually 304
verifiable. 305
Additional features in Fig. 9(a) data include a jump in sensor 1 measurements after 1000 306
sec, a fluctuation in sensor 2 measurements after 900 sec (at crack 3), and a higher level in 307
the change in capacitance compared with results obtained in Fig. 8 (experiments on wood 308
specimens). The upward jump in the sensor 1 is a result of an inversion of the electrode poles 309
for ’sensor 1 left’. This inversion allowed an additional level of damage localization with two 310
comparative patches, provided that the direction of strain was known to be increasing and 311
constant for both patches. Thus, the crack formed under the patch ’sensor 1 left’ (crack 4) 312
was measured as a positive change in capacitance. The fluctuation in the measurements at 313
crack 3 could be explained by the patch oscillating between two states of strain due to a local 314
plastic deformation of the material. This fluctuation tends to converge to the higher strain 315
state. Finally, the higher level of differential capacitance compared with the experiments 316
on wood specimens are partly attributed to the use of thicker patches (approximately 10% 317
thicker). 318
The good correspondence between visually observable results and the sensor pair curves 319
demonstrated that the sensing skin was capable of both detecting and localizing cracks in 320
the concrete beam. 321
In this paper, the concept of the sensing skin was substantially improved by developing a 323
capacitive sensing patch with tailored mechanical and electrical properties, de facto demon- 324
strating the generality of the sensing method. The sensing patch consists of a thermoplastic 325
elastomer doped with titanium dioxide and sandwiched by stretchable CB composite elec- 326
trodes. The proposed sensing method comprises several practical advantages, making the 327
technology directly applicable for health monitoring of civil infrastructure: 328
• Inexpensive material: SEBS-based materials are inexpensive and easy to process. 329
• Can cover large areas: the flexible nature of the membrane allows full-scale imple- 330
mentation, a powerful advantage compared against conventional mechanical strain 331
gauges. 332
• Low voltage (1-2.5 volts) requirement: capacitance-based measurements only require 333
a fraction of the electrical energy compared to resistance-based strain sensors. 334
• Easy to install: the sensor can be applied easily on irregular surfaces using off-the-shelf 335
epoxy and necessitates minor surface preparation. 336
• Customizable surface monitoring: shapes and sizes of the electrodes sandwiching the 337
polymer can be user-defined. 338
• Robust with respect to physical damages: damaged sensing patches can still be used 339
for measuring strain. 340
• Damage localization: individual sensor pairs can localize damage, and the polarity of 341
a signal change may give further precision within a sensor pair. 342
Tests on wood have shown that the new sensor is robust towards mechanical tampering 343
or accidents, and is capable of detecting cracks. Test on a medium-size concrete specimen 344
demonstrated the promising capability of the sensing skin to both detect and locate cracks, 345
an advantage over most existing SHM technologies. Potential impacts of the sensing skin 346
include: 347
1. Enhanced life-span of civil infrastructure via timely maintenance and visual inspection 348
programs, improving sustainability of civil infrastructure. 349
2. Cost savings arising from timely repairs and reduced number of visual inspections. 350
3. Improved safety by diagnosing and localizing problems before they endanger struc- 351
tural integrity. 352
The authors thank John T. Germaine for his priceless help and guidance during the 354
testing process, as well as Andreas Pucher and Stephen W. Rudolph for their valuable 355
support with the measurement setups. The authors also acknowledge support from the 356
WING initiative of the German Ministry of Education and Research through its NanoFutur 357
program (Grant No. NMP/03X5511). 358
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List of Tables 445
List of Figures 446
1 Sketch of a capacitive unit, showing the sandwich structure of compliant elec- 447
trodes surrounding an electrically insulating elastomer layer, deployed over a 448
monitored surface using a bounding agent. Layer thicknesses are not scaled. 21 449
2 SEM picture of a cryo-fractured surface of the polymer nanocomposite material 22 450
3 (a) Schematic of the plastic mask used to define the electrode area, (b) Soft 451
stretchable capacitor with conductive electrodes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23 452
4 (a) The capacitive sensor with an electrode area of 70 mm × 70 mm and 453
thickness of 386 µm (b) The sensor after a hole of diameter 14 mm was 454
punched through it. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 455
5 Sensitivity of a sensing patch with respect to strain (regular sensor above, 456
sensor with hole punched below). The bottom graph shows the strain history. 25 457
6 (a) Four sensing patches deployed on the bottom flange of the concrete beam, 458
forming a sensing skin. (b) Locations of sensing patches on the concrete beam 459
used for the experiment. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 460
7 (a) Sensor after five cuts. (b) Relative capacitance against time. . . . . . . . 27 461
8 (a) Relative capacitance and applied load against time - specimen 4. (b) 462
Typical three-point load setup for the wood specimens. (c) Cracked specimen 463
(bottom flange view). (d) Locations of sensing patches. . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 464
9 (a) Differential capacitance measurements for both set of sensors against time. 465
(b) Cracked specimen (bottom flange view) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29 466
polymer layer
bonding agent
monitored structure
stretchable electrodes
A+ A D
FIG. 1. Sketch of a capacitive unit, showing the sandwich structure of compliant elec-
trodes surrounding an electrically insulating elastomer layer, deployed over a monitored
surface using a bounding agent. Layer thicknesses are not scaled.
1 µm
Mag = 10 KX
FIG. 2. SEM picture of a cryo-fractured surface of the polymer nanocomposite material
glass substrate
FIG. 3. (a) Schematic of the plastic mask used to define the electrode area, (b) Soft
stretchable capacitor with conductive electrodes
C =692.7 pF
C=667.8 pF
C =23.8 pF
14 mm
FIG. 4. (a) The capacitive sensor with an electrode area of 70 mm × 70 mm and
thickness of 386 µm (b) The sensor after a hole of diameter 14 mm was punched
through it.

SEBS 500120
15 vol% TiO

0 1000 2000
Time [s]
3000 4000 5000
SEBS 500120
15 vol% TiO
FIG. 5. Sensitivity of a sensing patch with respect to strain (regular sensor above,
sensor with hole punched below). The bottom graph shows the strain history.
sensor 1
sensor 1
sensor 2
sensor 2
beam centerline
sensor 1
sensor 2
sensor 2
4 patches @ 80mm = 320 mm
sensor 1
90 mm
FIG. 6. (a) Four sensing patches deployed on the bottom flange of the concrete beam,
forming a sensing skin. (b) Locations of sensing patches on the concrete beam used
for the experiment.


0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70
Time [s]
1. Cut
1. Cut.
(a) (b)
FIG. 7. (a) Sensor after five cuts. (b) Relative capacitance against time.

Time [s]
0 100 200 300 400 500


beam centerline &
load point
(c) (b)
FIG. 8. (a) Relative capacitance and applied load against time - specimen 4. (b)
Typical three-point load setup for the wood specimens. (c) Cracked specimen (bottom
flange view). (d) Locations of sensing patches.
Time [s]
Crack 4
0 200 400 600 800 1000 1200




Crack 2c
Crack 3
Crack 2a &
Crack 1
Sensor 1
Sensor 2
sensor 1
sensor 1
left sensor 2
left sensor 2
beam centerline
crack 4
crack 3
crack 2c
crack 1
crack 2a&2b
(b) (a)
FIG. 9. (a) Differential capacitance measurements for both set of sensors against time.
(b) Cracked specimen (bottom flange view)