AN innovation changing the way doctors monitor some of the human body’s core functions could also make submarines run better.
In one of those strange twists that science loves to throw up, biomedical engineer Professor John Arkwright was busy establishing the manufacture of a unique fibre-optic medical catheter for gastrointestinal use when an academic colleague at Flinders University in South Australia threw him a question out of left field.
“He asked ‘if you can measure pressure in the gut with that thing can you also use it to measure pressure in water pipes?’,” Prof Arkwright said. “We went away, found that we could and went back to make a presentation.
The key is that to be able to measure in the gut we made a sensor that is sensitive to very small fluctuations
This time someone in the audience from ASC Pty Ltd (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) asked whether, if he could measure vibrations in water pipes, he could also do it in hydraulic pipes.
His team in the Medical Device Research Institute at Flinders University again went away and found that they could. They presented preliminary findings to ASC and at the recent Pacific2015 Innovation Pitchfest in Sydney, and have now been offered funding to take the idea further.
ASC, and potentially other submarine companies, are interested because they want to measure vibrations in their hydraulic pipes so they can reduce those vibrations (though the exact details are secret, even to the researchers).
“The key is that to be able to measure in the gut we made a sensor that is sensitive to very small fluctuations,” Prof Arkwright said. “Most fibre optic pressure sensors are looking at large industrial pressures such as seen in the mining industry.
“We can measure small pressure fluctuations, which are what you get in pipelines. Even though the pipelines themselves are fairly high pressure, the fluctuations are small.”
In fact, the team has taken a step back in order to address this new application.
“Our original design for the medical catheter was pretty good but not sensitive enough for in vivo recordings so we improved it. But for this purpose that first version is sufficiently sensitive and more robust.
“We use that for monitoring inside pipes and a different approach for monitoring outside pipes. That means we can build it into new pipes or retrofit into existing pipes.”