Grant allows UMaine to turn up heat on sensor technology

Posted Aug. 10, 2011, at 10:02 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the University of Maine a $1.2 million grant to improve tiny sensors that could help cut carbon dioxide emissions and energy costs by millions, according to the sensors’ creators.

The sensors are minuscule — about half a millimeter wide, a few millimeters long and weighing less than a gram — but could make a world of difference, said Robert Lad, a University of Maine professor of physics and president of Environetix, the Orono-based technology company that markets the sensors.

After Lad and his colleagues worked on the sensors at the university for about a decade, the technology drew interest from the U.S. Air Force, which wanted to put the sensors in jet engines to monitor their condition. Lad started Environetix in 2009 with fellow professor Mauricio Pereira da Cunha, in hopes of widely distributing the product.

The wireless, battery-free devices go into the most “hostile environments,” Lad said, such as turbine engines on aircraft where temperatures can hit 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. A langasite crystal constantly senses temperature and pressure changes, which the sensor sends out by radio frequency to an “interrogator box” or “black box” that holds the information, Lad said.

By looking at these readings, a mechanic “can tell ahead of time if something isn’t right and can replace a part before it fails,” said Don McCann, senior project manager at Environetix.

This sort of foresight can be especially important at power plants, where a part that isn’t performing correctly can be dangerous — and very expensive to repair, according to Lad.

“You have to always know what’s going on inside these plants,” he said.

Shutting down a power plant for one day for repairs can cost as much as $1 million. Even a 1 percent drop in efficiency in coal-burning boilers at a plant can cost as much as $300 million more per year and pump out an extra 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Lad said.

Keeping ahead of repairs and monitoring the efficiency of power plant facilities would be a perfect job for the sensors, Lad said, if only they could handle the heat.

The current sensors can handle temperatures around 1,800 degrees, but temperatures in power plant systems can reach 2,200 degrees, Lad said.

The $1,198,738 federal grant will help researchers find materials that can withstand the 400-degree difference.

“Another part of the grant is to figure out where our sensors are needed,” Lad said.

When their sensors can stand the heat, the university and Environetix will begin marketing them to power plants worldwide.

Sensor systems, which include about 100 sensors and and the black box, would cost a power plant $50,000 to $100,000, depending on the type of the power system, according to Lad.

Maine Energy Recovery Co., a Biddeford-based company that incinerates trash, is interested in a sensor system to monitor the condition of tubes, which can degrade over time because of heat and fumes, McCann said.

Prominent engine makers such as Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce have also expressed interest in the technology.

Once the sensors’ temperature tolerance improves, Lad said, power plants, steelmakers and even NASA — which might want the sensors to monitor the effect of heat and pressure on atmosphere re-entry vehicles — could be potential clients.

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