From a deep understanding

Xiaoyi Bao

The probing spirit of creativity that made Xiaoyi Bao long to be a poet has led her to groundbreaking insights in the field of fibre optic sensors.

by Harold Eastman

I’m not one of those people who was interested in science when I was young,” says professor Xiaoyi Bao. “I wanted to be a poet.” 

A surprising statement, coming from a researcher whose ideas are building a global reputation for the University of Ottawa in the field of fibre optic sensors. 

At a recent international conference on the subject, Bao and her uOttawa colleagues were called on to deliver 4 out of 40 presentations—a 10% share of platform time that shows just how far above her weight the diminutive physicist is punching. 

Her success is due to her research focus on fundamentals. “We’re not just modifying technology,” Bao explains. “We’re coming at it from a deep understanding of physics. As a result, anything we develop is usually the first ever.”

Xiaoyi Bao uses some very sophisticated science to make her systems work. But the basic principles are simple. Like this one: all substances are made up of molecules that vibrate at a certain rate under ordinary temperature and pressure conditions. Raise the temperature, though, and the frequency of vibration increases. Reduce the temperature and the vibration slows. The same thing happens if you apply or reduce pressure.

Now, imagine an oil pipeline located in the Arctic, and imagine that corrosion is dangerously thinning a section of the steel. A financial and ecological disaster is in the making. The good news is this pipeline has a continuous strand of pure glass embedded in the wall of the pipe. At the corrosion point, cooler temperatures from the ground reach that strand through the thinning steel and slow the vibration of the glass molecules there. The corrosion also deforms the pipe slightly including the embedded strand. This causes further changes to the frequency at which the glass molecules vibrate.

Bao’s simple solution is to shine a laser light of a set wavelength down the glass strand. What comes back is a storm of light, as the pulse bounces off all the particles in the strand. But—here’s the key—the light bouncing back from the slightly cooler point at the leak will be distinctively altered, because of the different frequency at which the glass particles there are vibrating. By combining a knowledge of the properties and behaviours of all the materials involved—light, glass, steel—and by performing some math on the bounced-back light, Bao’s team can pinpoint the corrosion to within two metres over a hundred kilometres of pipe. A crew can be dispatched to dig at exactly the right spot and repair the damage before a disaster occurs.

It’s not surprising that lots of companies have come knocking on her lab door and that sensor systems using her methods are in use in Canada, the United States, Japan and China. Similar sensors are being used to locate stress points on bridges and other structures.

While professor Bao is gratified by all these applications, they’re not her primary motivation.
“I want to pursue the new and unique,” she says. “I’m not going to be a beggar to industry. If I discover something, and you find it attractive, I’ll help you out. But I’m really more interested in pushing the envelope.”

That creative spirit runs deep. From childhood, Bao has been interested in literature and the social sciences. She wanted to be a poet or a novelist. But she enrolled in science at university because that’s what smart, responsible young people were expected to do.

The turning point came in graduate school, when she started pursuing serious research. “I got the same feeling I had in writing poetry,” she remembers. “A good writer wants to go deep, to find something original. And I discovered it’s the same thing in physics. When you do research, you want to create something.”

She pauses, as if considering these two sides to her personality.

“All along, you are exploring yourself and nature, and you find that the two are linked.” So—a poet, after all. 

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