IoT opportunity

28 August 2019

The ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality is often adopted by the nuclear industry. But, as Betty Bonnardel-Azzarelli explains, the nuclear sector could benefit greatly from innovations such as remote monitoring.

THERE IS A LOT OF hype about the internet of things (IoT). But there is no doubt that the advantages of exploiting artificial intelligence and blockchain, combined with IoT systems are changing the way the industrial and business sectors think and operate. According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), industrial IoT “is forecast to add $14 trillion to the global economy by 2030”. The data gathered by IoT devices, however, is meaningless if it is not analysed and used to inform decisions.

Everything originates from an idea, or an issue to solve. Innovation looks at the best possible solution, optimising the use of existing technologies and identifying the necessary technical readiness levels (TRLs). The solution must be studied through its feasibility, its commercial and socio-economic impacts, its strategy, and its technical features. It is an iterative process, which requires project management, business and financial analysis, and technology evaluation. Innovation also requires a global view and the ability to adapt concepts and solutions used in one sector for use in a different context.

Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School, introduced the concept of disruptive innovation (disruption of an existing scale of values) as early as the mid-1990s. Current thinkers believe that the bricks on which digital technologies are developing — such as computing power and data storage capacity — can amplify this trend, accelerating innovation.

Adopting innovation is never easy, especially when it comes to established contexts and markets. Innovation implies a change of mentality and discussions about processes, controls and regulations. It is therefore important that innovation is in harmony with its environment. The common expression “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should be avoided, as any system could be outdated, deteriorating or no longer in line with the changes happening around the system. For instance, in transporting radioactive materials by road, traffic may have changed (e.g. there may be more bicycles or autonomous vehicles) making a different impact on the way roads are used, even if no change is made to regulations or operations. The UK Department for Transport says pedal cycle traffic increased by 28.2% in the ten years to 2017. New cycle lanes have been created that could change routes typically used for materials transport.

How is innovation useful to the nuclear sector? New developments in reactor and fuel design and technology come to mind. But in power plant operation and decommissioning, transport and storage, there are many areas that could benefit from innovation. That ranges from updating a business strategy to improving communications, optimising processes or adding security. Of course, each innovation has to be assessed in terms of safety, security and reliability, ensuring that efficiency is improved while the same levels (or better) of safety and security are assured.

The IoT industry originally focused more on the consumer sector, but it has become apparent that IoT brings many benefits to businesses. New IoT companies are offering new sensor technologies and innovative solutions to each industry sector.

IoT allows the collection of more data, and therefore a better understanding of systems, monitoring and control which, coupled with artificial intelligence, can support decision making.

Nuclear plants have to be constantly at their optimum degree of maintenance. Both newer and older plants should be monitored and, most importantly, potential failures should be detected as early as possible, in order to intervene promptly regardless of the age of the structure. The IoT can provide data which will be collected and interpreted to lead to ad hoc actions. These could then be communicated and exploited for refurbishment, safety and security purposes. Remote data collection and transmission also allow more flexibility to analyse and monitor the plant and its emissions remotely, and the possibility of automated intervention. Collecting data, and a well-planned use of these data, will be useful to enhance the nuclear sector’s productivity, safety and durability. A more refined knowledge of the system should eventually enable a prediction of the performance and assets of a plant.

There are risks in using IoT technology in the nuclear sector — for example, relating to cybersecurity and data security. These risks are addressed from the system design stage. Robust mitigation techniques exist across activities from data collection, using the IoT devices, to data processing and information transmission to the data centre.

One innovative idea transferred to nuclear from the construction sector is provided by Temlab, brought to the nuclear sector by AB5 Consulting. It is a newly patented IoT system for remote monitoring of concrete corrosion.

The durability and long-term performance of concrete structures in severe environments is severely tested by carbonation and chloride attack. Traditionally, invasive monitoring techniques are used to evaluate degradation and issues. The Temlab system is non-invasive, based on measuring the electrochemical corrosion of embedded steel and chlorides concentration and pH, via sensors embedded in the structure. The measurements, focused on pH, chloride concentration, conductivity, temperature and humidity, can be taken on site or remotely. Sensors can be installed either during concrete casting (the sensors are immersed in the concrete; the reference electrode is placed where the structure solidifies) or after casting by inserting them in small holes drilled into the concrete.

While the system has been developed to monitor bridges and buildings, this technology could be beneficial to the nuclear sector, providing a safe and cost-efficient solution to monitor concrete structures.

Other benefits include regular collection of data, which can provide continuous control, better informing the decision-making process, which otherwise depends on visual and invasive methods that rely on spot checks.

Compared with other monitoring solutions, the Temlab system is more predictive, as it performs concrete-cover monitoring on a structure, avoiding steel damage. This is achieved by monitoring chlorides damage in concrete structures and assessing carbonatation at the development stage — addressing the most serious phenomena causing structural degradation. Regular monitoring of the structures before they are affected by corrosion should lower the repair costs, as costs to repair and restore buildings are much lower before they are affected by steel corrosion.

Author information: Betty Bonnardel-Azzarelli, Founder & CEO, AB5 Consulting 

The Temlab system for remote monitoring of concrete structures
Schematic showing the Internet of Things

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