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Single-Chip Chromatography, and More

Honeywell and others will develop new industrial sensor and wireless networking technologies under terms of a co-funded Department of Energy project.

The ability to perform gas composition analysis quickly and at high accuracy using only a single silicon chip could go a long way toward development of more effective and energy-efficient, real-time industrial process control systems. If all goes as intended, such single-chip gas chromatography will be one of the technologies perfected under terms of a three-year, $10 million, federally co-funded project announced on Dec. 4 by Honeywell International, Morris Township, N.J.

The effort will be 50 percent funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Other deliverables planned for the project include development and demonstration of a standardized, process stream sampling system that will accommodate sensors from multiple vendors, as well as an “industrial strength,” open, wireless networking standard, says Dan Sheflin (shown above), vice president and chief technology officer for Honeywell’s Automation and Control Solutions (ACS) business, in Minneapolis.

Six business units from Honeywell ACS have teamed up with Honeywell ACS Labs, and will work with nearly 20 other industrial partners on the project. Partners include end-user companies Alcoa, ChevronTexaco, Dow Chemical, DuPont and ExxonMobil. A variety of vendor companies will also participate, including Adcon, Ember, and Omnex, which will contribute wireless networking expertise.

Saving $1 billion

In announcing the project, Honeywell said the effort will aim to develop wireless and sensor technologies that can meet plant floor operational control challenges and help U.S. industry reduce operation costs by up to $1 billion annually.

A major goal for the DOE-sponsored project is reduced energy consumption. Manufacturers across several industries currently face physical and technology barriers that limit the ability to effectively move and manage operations data throughout plant-floor environments, Honeywell said. As a result, they lack accurate real-time process information sufficient to control their processes, leading to sub-optimal or non-controlled processes and higher-than-necessary energy consumption.

Through improved sensing, wireless and control technologies of the kind to be pursued under the project, the DOE and Honeywell see potential to drive industrial energy savings of up to 256 trillion BTUs per year, while reducing environmental impacts and increasing yields. Target industries for the project include aluminum, chemicals, forest products, glass, metal casting, mining, petroleum and steel.

Analysis on a chip

According to Sheflin, the DOE-sponsored project will include three major pieces. One part will build upon several years of work already done by Honeywell on a technique known as phased gas chromatography, he says. The technology relies in part upon a series of highly miniaturized devices that are used to elevate the concentration levels of gasses flowing past a sensor, enabling fast, highly accurate, and potentially low-cost, single chip-level analysis of the gas.

These single-chip devices, when placed within a process flow line and linked to factory control systems, could enable process monitoring and control in real time with much higher accuracy levels than is possible today, Sheflin says. “By being able to measure these gasses in real time, as the flow is going on, you’ll be able to very accurately control the mix of the gasses, so that you save energy and you don’t end up having to scrap material.” Honeywell is exploring use of the phased technology for liquid chromatography as well, Sheflin adds.

A second part of the project is linked to work being done by an ad hoc industry group known as the New Sampling/Sensor Initiative (NeSSI), says Sheflin. The group—which is sponsored by the Center for Process Analytical Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle—includes more than 250 members from end user and vendor companies, including Honeywell. NeSSI goals including simplification and standardization of process analyzer sample system design.

Under the DOE-sponsored project, Honeywell and its partners will work to develop and demonstrate standardized modules based on the NeSSI “Generation II” sampling system, according to Sheflin. Using a common board substrate and surface-mount technologies, the goal is to develop a standardized sampling platform that can accommodate multiple sensor types from multiple vendors, he explains. “Then you’ll have the capability to place these standardized modules anywhere around the plant for doing temperature, pressure or flow measurement, for example, or gas or liquid chromatography.”

Industrial-strength wireless

The third piece of the DOE-sponsored project is the development and demonstration of an easy-to-use, open wireless network technology for tying it all together. “There are lots of standards out there. There’s Bluetooth, and people are working on ZigBee,” says Sheflin. “But the difference here is that we’re creating an industrial strength version of that.” As the primary network designer, Honeywell may gain some first-mover advantage, Sheflin concedes. “But our goal when we’re done is to have a truly open wireless standard that anyone, including our competitors, will be able to plug into,” he emphasizes.

The wireless network design will be based on a unique systems architecture that will tightly integrate highly robust radio communications with a redundant, yet flexible infrastructure, Sheflin says. Spread spectrum and mesh network methodologies are among technologies being explored. Minimization of device power consumption as well as network security will also be key design considerations, he adds.

“Our estimates are that about 60 percent of the cost of installing a sensor today is in the wiring,” says Sheflin. “So from that point of view, the wireless network architecture that we’re proposing will really change the game.” With the high cost of wiring eliminated, companies will be able to place more sensors in more places, providing higher process visibility, he explains. The result, Sheflin believes, will be “much tighter control over processes, saving energy, saving scrap and improving output.”

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