The University of Southampton

The shape of things to come: how flat fibre could revolutionise the world

Published: 8 January 2024

Changing the shape of optical fibre could unlock many potential benefits for researchers, industry and consumers. A £2.2million grant to the University of Southampton and five other universities will investigate how making optical fibre sensors ‘flat’ or letterbox-shaped in cross-section, instead of circular, could transform the manufacturing of high value composite materials.

Composites are produced by bringing together two or more materials such as plastic, carbon fibre, ceramics and even glass. They are widely used in aircraft, cars, boats, wind turbine blades and in structures such as bridges because they can be lighter, stronger and more durable than conventional materials. However, manufacturers need to understand more about composites during their manufacturing stage, as well as how they perform throughout their lifetime. Sensors can provide these insights.

Flat fibre sensors fitting snugly inside composites have the potential to uniquely monitor whether the material is fit for purpose and will keep its strength while it is being used. They may even be able to feed into the manufacturing process to optimise the performance of the component and predict when it is likely to fail.

Principal Investigator Dr Christopher Holmes at the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC),University of Southampton is heading this project which could make composite manufacturing more efficient and sustainable. It is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The core concept began at the ORC in 2018/19 with a Zepler Institute Stimulus Fund grant. Small pots of money from Higher Education Innovation Fund allocated to help early career researchers progress their work. It meant Dr Holmes could establish links with fellow academic, Professor Janice Barton in Mechanical Engineering who input expertise in composites and mechanical testing, to develop a proof-of-concept that was further supported by EPSRC Future Composites Manufacturing Research Hub.

During this three-year project, the team at ORC will develop the flat fibre sensors in the Zepler cleanrooms, in collaboration with manufacturing at the Bristol Composite Institute, University of Bristol. Then researchers at the universities of Nottingham, Warwick, Herefordshire and Wrexham will go on to use the new sensors to develop case studies aligned with industry partners.

“The leverage of interdisciplinary expertise is fundamental if we are to successfully revolutionise composite material manufacture. The University of Southampton has fantastic cleanroom capabilities and a strong reputation in pioneering optical fibre fabrication and our colleagues have comprehensive knowledge of composites and their applications. Our joint research on flat fibre sensors could transform the ultimate performance of composite structures.”

Engineers in industry are watching with interest, have contributed ten per cent of the grant allocation. "This reflects a key strength frequently demonstrated at the ORC, the ability to create a pipeline that pushes fundamental research towards industrial impact," says Dr Holmes.

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