Mechanical engineering research: The science of “smart pipes”

“Know what’s below. Call before you dig.” Most people in Oklahoma can rattle off this familiar refrain, which encourages everyone, before plunging a spade or a backhoe into the dirt, to contact OKIE811 to verify the location of the area’s utilities pipes.

These days, utilities pipes are commonly made of plastics, such as polyethylene, because they are easier to manufacture and install and resist corrosion. Finding them is done using ground-penetrating radar (GPR); however, unlike the case with traditional metal pipes, the signals emitted by plastic pipes can be faint and hard to distinguish.

In search of “smart functionality”

That’s where mechanical engineering doctoral candidate and instructor Laura Waldman enters the picture. A member of TU’s Advanced Composite Materials Lab, Waldman is researching and testing “smart functionality” in polyethylene pipes.

Mechanical engineering student Laura Waldman outdoors standing on a white pipe laid horizontally in a trench dug into the ground“‘Smart pipes’ could report information about location and possible damage to operators during surveys,” said Waldman. “This would reduce the risk of loss of service and, more importantly, accidents during work projects.”

To implement smart functionality in pipes, Waldman is installing antenna structures made from a conductive composite polyethylene. Multifunctional antenna structures created from this material resonate in response to the radar signals, allowing operators to determine the location of pipelines prior to excavation.

“As part of this project,” Waldman explained, “we collaborated with members of TU’s Department of Geosciences to test these antenna structures with commercial GPR equipment. We successfully increased the response signal of the pipes to radar and we are currently working on damage detection studies.”

Continuing to discover — despite the pandemic

This year, of course, COVID-19 has altered just about everyone’s plans, including Waldman’s. One of the major pitfalls has been the loss of access to the off-campus facility where she processes the composite polyethylene. In addition, whereas normally her cross-disciplinary work entails collaborating with faculty and students from other departments, including Chemistry and Biochemistry, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Geosciences, necessary physical distancing measures have meant that many of her experimental projects have been put on hold.

Making the best of the situation, however, Waldman noted that “this summer I am focusing more on simulation and modeling work, which I can do remotely.”


Combine theory and practice while learning from professors who know your name: consider TU’s mechanical engineering graduate programs.