What if your home was ablaze, but told firefighters how likely it was to collapse? What if your home could let you know how its shear strength survived the last earthquake. And what if it could tell you the likelihood of it losing its roof in the next hurricane?

Academic researchers say your home can do all those things and more -- if it's constructed with so-called "smart bricks" or other building materials embedded with electronic sensors.

Scientists at the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say their "smart brick" is a no-brainer.

"We are living with more and more smart electronics all around us, but we still live and work in fairly dumb buildings. By making our buildings smarter, we can improve both our comfort and safety," said Chang Liu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university.

Liu along with graduate student Jon Engel have stirred up a batch of technological soup -- flexible polymer sensors, signal processing and wireless technology -- to create building materials that can report building conditions to a remote computer.

The prototype is a "smart brick" built into a wall to monitor the building's temperature, vibration and movement. The researchers say the information could be vital to firefighters battling a blazing skyscraper, or to rescue workers who need to know the soundness of an earthquake-damaged home.

Not only a disaster-prevention device, property mangers and homeowners could use the technology to maintain and repair buildings. Homeowners, for example, could keep abreast of air leaks or moisture intrusion to improve energy efficiency or avoid mold.

While the scientists' prototype is a brick, the technology can be added to any building material including concrete blocks, structural steel, lumber, roofing materials and many others. Construction workers can handle the material just like any other building material.

"Our proof-of-concept brick is just one example of where you can have the sensor, signal processor, wireless communication link and battery packaged in one compact unit," Liu said.

The National Science Foundation funded the work which has spun off a company Integrated Micro Devices Corp..

Liu says the company has trademarked the product to pursue commercialization and licensing the technology for use by material and building companies.

"This innovation could change the face of the construction industry," Liu says.

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