In-Cylinder Position Sensing in Electrically Conductive Hydraulic Fluids

The standard for hydraulic fluid in the industry is mineral oil, which is a dielectric medium that does not conduct electricity. Yet environmental concerns have led to the search for alternatives that are less harmful in case of leaks and spills. One development is biodegradable oils, typically with biological origins, often called “bio-oils” for short. They behave in many ways like mineral oil with a key difference in that they can be electrically conductive.

Another alternative hydraulic fluid is water-glycol mixtures, commonly known as the anti-freeze found in your liquid-cooled automobile engine. Water-glycol solutions are used for several reasons, including environmental concerns but more often conditions of extreme heat or extreme cold. They have much lower viscosity than oil, and there are several fluid power application considerations as a result, but water-glycol mixtures, like bio-oils, are electrically conductive.


So, when it comes to cylinder position sensing, why should we care whether or not the hydraulic fluid is electrically conductive? Well, because it could come back to bite us if we put an incompatible position sensing technology into a cylinder that is filled with a conductive fluid.

I recently met an engineer who’d run into this exact situation. A hydraulic cylinder was ordered from the manufacturer with an “integrated position feedback sensor.” The feedback sensor turned out to be a resistive potentiometric type, in other words, a linear potentiometer or “pot.” The entire length of the resistive material is “wetted” inside the cylinder, along with the traveling “wiper” that moves with the piston. In typical applications with non-conductive, mineral-based hydraulic fluid, this works fine (although linear pots do tend to be somewhat fragile and do wear out over time). However, when the resistive material and wiper is wetted in a conductive liquid, all kinds of wrong start happening. The signal becomes very erratic, unstable, and lacks resolution and repeatability. This is because the fluid is basically short-circuiting the operation of the open-element linear potentiometer.

This caused quite a headache for the engineer’s customer and subsequently for the engineer. Fortunately, a replacement cylinder was ordered, this time with a non-contact magnetostrictive linear position sensor. The magnetostrictive sensor is supplied with a pressure-rated, protective stainless steel tube that isolates the electrical sensing element from the hydraulic medium. The position marker is a magnet instead of a wiper, which the sensor can detect through the walls of the stainless steel pressure tube. So, a magnetostrictive sensor is absolutely unaffected by the electrical properties of the hydraulic medium.

A magnetostrictive linear position sensor carries a lot of performance and application advantages over linear pots that make them a superior technology in most applications, but when it comes to conductive hydraulic fluids they are definitely the preferred choice.

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