Glass blower Karen Cunningham’s art has inspired a clever bit of science.
An Australian team has developed a new kind of hybrid material after she helped them discover that high-performance diamond sensors can be made using conventional glass fibres.
And that could open the door to many applications in underwater monitoring, mining and beyond, says Dongbi Bai from RMIT University, lead author of a paper in the journal APL Materials.
By embedding micron-scale diamond particles within the cross section of a silicate glass fibre, the researchers say, they have demonstrated the use of a robust fibre material capable of sensing magnetic fields.
Diamond is one of the front runner technologies for quantum magnetic field sensing, but diamond particles need to be viewed through high-end microscopes that aren’t suited for use over an extended period or in the field.
Co-author Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem, from the University of Adelaide, says her team has been working to get around this issue for a decade, “but because diamond burns at high temperatures, we’ve been limited in the glasses that we can use”.
That’s where Cunningham came. She was making art in her Adelaide studio using nanoparticles to show how light moves through glass and was fascinated by the diamonds Heike and her colleagues were using in their research.
The scientists gave the artist some of their larger diamonds, which were only good for testing. (Large is a relative term here. They were only around one micron in diameter – about 2% of a human hair).
To their great surprise, the diamonds survived the glass blowing process, and were part of one of Cunningham’s exhibitions in 2017.
“For us, it was the lightbulb moment and we knew we could make diamond sensors in more conventional glass fibres,” Heike said.
Going from art to prototype sensors did take another three years of testing and fabrication, however.
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