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University of Waterloo researchers develop sensor for building leak protection


February 20, 2020  


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Photo: University of Waterloo

A new battery-free sensor can detect water leaks in buildings at a fraction of the cost of existing systems. The product, developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo, uses nanotechnology to power itself and send an alert to smartphones when exposed to moisture.

By removing the battery and related circuitry from the product, researchers estimate the sensor could be commercially produced for $1 each, which is about a tenth of the cost of producing current leak detection devices on the market.

“One of the big issues related to water damage in buildings is that owners don’t install enough sensors because they are too expensive,” said George Shaker, an engineering professor at Waterloo. “The much lower cost of our sensor enables the deployment of many, many more to greatly improve protection.”

The tiny sensor is about five millimetres in diameter and is comprised of stacked nanoparticles. When the nanoparticles get wet, a chemical reaction produces enough electricity to power a wireless radio and additional sensors to record environmental conditions such as temperature. The wireless radio and other sensors are on a circuit board packaged with the leak sensor in a box that measures three centimetres square.

“We harvest the energy that is created when the sensor is exposed to water and that energy then powers the electronics to send an alert to the user’s cellphone via the internet,” said Norman Zhou, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering and collaborator on the sensor.

In addition to being cheaper than their counterparts, the new sensors are environmentally friendly, reset after use, can be installed in hard-to-reach places and require much less maintenance.

A paper on the research, Development of novel water leak detection mesh network utilizing batteryless sensing nodes, was presented at a recent conference on smart cities and the Internet of Things.

The research team also included student Oliver Witham, postdoctoral fellow Ming Xiao, research associate Jiayun Feng, physics and astronomy professor Walter Duley, and graduate student Nathan Johnston.