Scientist John Reintjes is what you might call a 'build a better mousetrap' type-of-guy. About ten years ago, he watched as Navy ships took regular oil samples from their lubricating systems and sent them ashore to be analyzed. Fine debris and particulate matter suspended in a ship's oil reservoirs - metal filings, chips, water, and fiber matter for instance - points to wear, stress, overheating, surface fatigue, misalignment, sand, rust, or breakage within a system. Once on shore analysts examined a sample and determined - based on experience and perhaps a good hunch - what the particulate matter might be. Up to three months might pass before the results were returned to the ship. This could be well after an engine or mechanical system breakdown or catastrophic failure might have already occurred.
Reintjes thought there had to be a better way. So, working at the Naval Research Lab with funding from ONR, he and his team began building an extensive "library" of fine particulate matter that had been painstakingly identified by ferrography and microscopy, and fed this into his computer. Then, he designed a small, rugged system that passes laser pulses through an oil sample sandwiched between two glass plates. Thousands of images of the debris are thus created that, at first glance, looks curiously like a page of shorthand Egyptian hieroglyphics. All of the particulate matter found is classified using algorithms based on neural networking, making the same good 'hunches' a human analyst can make with about 97% accuracy.
Reintjes' black box costs about $30,000 - a bargain if you consider that failure of the hangar deck's hydraulic elevator lifts can put a multi-billion dollar nuclear aircraft carrier out of business until it can be repaired. "Industry studies show that about 25 percent of all U.S. production capacity is inoperative at any given time due to mechanical failure," says Reintjes. "An engine or gearbox failure prevented can provide huge financial benefits. It is no different in the Navy. Downtime, whether its because of failure or for regularly scheduled maintenance, is downright expensive."
Lockheed Martin built Reintjes' debris monitor analyzer in the form of a little black box, which goes by the name of the LaserNet Fines (LNF) instrument. It has immense potential for improving the Navy's safety and readiness, while reducing costs for new ships as well as the current fleet, and in Navy aircraft, too. Its potential in the railroad and trucking, electric power generation, construction, commercial shipping, commercial airlines, mining, and offshore oil drilling industries is enormous. It is being marketed by Spectro Inc. in Littleton, MA.