Mini Sensors Add Big Capabilities to Life Science Applications

1Miniaturization is one of the essential requirements for medical instruments and laboratory equipment used in the life science industry. As instruments get smaller and smaller, the sensor components must also become smaller, lighter and more flexible. The photoelectric sensors that were commonly used in general automation and applied in life science applications have met their limitations in size and performance.

2.jpgSensors used in these complex applications require numerous special characteristics such as high-quality optics, unique housing designs, precise LEDs with the best suited wavelength and the ability to be extremely flexible to fit in the extremely small space available. Sensors have been developed to meet the smallest possible installation footprint with the highest optical precision and enough flexibility to be installed where they are needed. These use integrated micro-precision optics that shape and focus the light beam exactly on the object without any undesirable side-effects to achieve the reliability demanded in today’s applications.

Previously many life science applications used conventional plastic fiber optic cables that were often too large and not flexible enough to be routed through the instruments. An alternative to the classic fiber cables is a “wired” fiber with precision micro-optics and extremely flexible cables with essentially no minimum bending radius and no significant coupling losses. Similar to a conventional fiber optic sensor, an external amplifier is required to provide a wide variety of functionalities to solve the demanding applications.

These sensors can be used in applications such as:

  • Precise detection of liquid levels using either attenuation or refraction with a small footprint
  • Reliable detection of transparent objects such as microscope slides or coverslips having various edge shapes
  • Detection of transparent liquids in micro-channels or capillaries
  • Reliable detection of individual droplets
  • Recognition of free-floating micro-bubbles in a tube that are smaller than the tube diameter and that cannot be seen by the human eye
  • Recognition of macro-bubbles that are the diameter of small tubes

For more information on photoelectric sensors that have the capability to meet the demands of today’s life science applications visit www.balluff.com.

Make Clear Water Visible to Your Sensors

In some industries such as life sciences it is necessary to detect clear water or clear liquids in a container or tube. This is even more challenging when the diameters of the tube are small, and the tube thickness is nearly as large as the stream of liquid.

The attenuation or gradual reduction of the intensity of the light beam in water and air can be directly compared. The attenuation of light in water can be attributed to light entering water at any angle other than at a right angle and can be refracted. The measurement of light through a tube is different because not only is the light attenuated by the liquid, but depending on where the light passes through the tube it can be refracted, diverted and or focused. As a result, the signal differences can be low.

Attenuation is typically the first choice if the liquids are opaque or colored. The requirements of the shape of the light beam and the alignment of the sensor add more complication to the application. The attenuation effect appears weaker in clear liquids. The principle does not work with reflective sensors since reflection is a surface effect and the light must pass through the liquid.OPTO_appl_08_sw-water

From spectral analysis it’s has been determined that the attenuation characteristics of water are heavily dependent on the wavelength of the light that is conducted through it. Sensors were developed for such applications. Typically, these sensors utilize LED’s in the upper infrared range of 1,450 nm. At this wavelength water literally absorbs the light and becomes opaque making detection more simplified and reliable.

This principle even works for fine capillaries and microchannels. Liquid detection can be very precise depending on the sensor size and the effective light beam. Light beams as small as 0.4mm can provide high resolution for small thin tubes typically found in microfluidics applications.

Versions of these sensors exist for applications that involve less transparent or semi-transparent vessels. Light at the 1450nm wavelength can pass through these containers or tubes and can be attenuated by the water. The main factor is that enough light makes its way through the walls of the container.

Through-beam sensors were developed for applications such as detecting clear liquids. These sensors are also available in extremely small dimensions and usually require an amplifier, or they can be supplied in a rugged fork sensor housing. The required sensor dimensions conform to the geometry of the vessel or container.

For more information on sensors for these types of applications contact your local Balluff representative or contact us at www.balluff.com.

Capacitive Sensors: Versatile enough for most (but not all) detection applications

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Capacitive sensors are versatile for use in numerous applications. They can be used to detect objects such as glass, wood, paper, plastic, ceramic, and more. Capacitive sensors used to detect objects are easily identified by the flush mounting or shielded face of the sensor. This shielding causes the electrostatic field to be short and conical shaped, much like the shielded version of an inductive proximity sensor.

capacitive 2Just as there are non-flush or unshielded inductive sensors, there are non-flush capacitive sensors, and the mounting and housing look the same. The non-flush capacitive sensors have a large spherical field which allows them to be used in level detection, including detection of liquids and granular solids. Levels can be detected either directly with the sensor making contact with the medium, or indirectly with the sensor sensing the medium through a non-metallic container wall.

Capacitive sensors are discrete devices so once you adjust the sensitivity to detect the target while ignoring the container, the sensor is either on or off. Also remember that the sensor is looking for the dielectric constant in the case of a standard capacitive sensor or the conductivity of a water based liquid in the case of the hybrid technology.

Recent technology advances with remote amplifiers have allowed capacitive sensors to provide an analog output or a digital value over IO-Link. As previously mentioned, these sensors are based off of a dielectric constant so the analog value being created is dependent on the media being sensed.

While capacitive sensors are versatile to work in many applications, they are not the right choice for all applications.

Recently a customer inquired if a capacitive sensor could detect the density of an substance and unfortunately the short answer is no, though in some applications the analog sensors can detect different levels of media if it can be separated in a centrifuge. Also, capacitive sensors may not detect small amounts of media as the dielectric constant of the media must be higher than the container that holds the media.

There are three important steps in applying a capacitive sensor — test it, test it and test it one more time. During your testing procedures be sure to test it under the best and worse conditions. Also like any other electronic device temperature can have an affect although it may be negligible there will be some affect.

For more information on capacitive sensors visit www.balluff.com.

Measuring Distance: Should I Use Light or Sound?

Clear or transparent sensing targets can be a challenge but not an insurmountable one. Applications can detect or measure the amount of clear or transparent film on a roll or the level of a clear or transparent media, either liquid or solid.  The question for these applications becomes, do I use light or sound as a solution?

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An application that measures the diameter of a roll of clear labels.

In an application that requires the measurement of the diameter of a roll of clear labels, there are a number of factors that need to be considered.  Are the labels and the backing clear?  Will the label transparency and the background transparency change?  Will the labels have printing on them?  All of these possibilities will affect which sensor should be used. Users should also ask how accurate or how much resolution is required.

Faced with this application, using ultrasonic sensors may be a better choice because of their ability to see targets regardless of color, possible printing on the label, transparency and surface texture or sheen.  Some or all of these variables could affect the performance of a photoelectric sensor.

Ultrasonic sensors emit a burst of short high frequency sound waves that propagate in a cone shape towards the target.  When the sound waves strike the target, they are bounced back to the sensor. The sensor then calculates the distance based on the time span from when the sound was emitted until the sound was received.

In some instances, and depending on the resolution required, a time of flight sensor may solve the above application. Time of Flight (TOF) sensors emit a pulsed light toward the target object. The light is then reflected back to the receiver. The elapsed time it takes for the light to return to the receiver is measured, thus determining the distance to the target. In this case, the surface finish and transparency may not be an issue.

Imagine trying to detect a clear piece of plastic going over a roll.  The photoelectric sensor could detect it either in a diffuse mode or with a retroreflective sensor designed for clear glass detection.  But what if the plastic characteristics can change frequently or if the surface flutters.  Again, the ultrasonic sensor may be a better choice and also may not require set up any time the material changes.

So what’s the best solution?  In the end, test the application with the worst case scenario.  A wide variety of sensors are available to solve these difficult applications, including photoelectric or ultrasonic. Both sensors have continuous analog and discrete outs.  For more information visit www.balluff.com.

 

Technological Alternative to Fiber Optics

Photoelectric applications with space restrictions, small part detection, high temperatures, or aggressive harsh environments may be solved using fiber optic sensors. These sensors allow the electronics to be mounted out of harm’s way while at the same time focusing the light beam on a small target. The sensing tips can be manufactured in a wide variety of housings for unique mounting requirements.

Fiber optic sensors require two components: a remote mounted amplifier, and the fiber optic cable(s). The amplifiers can be basic, with few features, or advanced with many configurable options and digital displays. The fiber optic cables are made of either plastic or glass fibers, each with advantages and application specific solutions.

Many applications, primarily those in the medical Technological Alternative to Fiber Optics 1sciences and semiconductor industries, cannot be solved with fiber optic or miniature photoelectric sensors because they are physically too large to fit in the instruments. Additionally, the cables are typically not flexible enough to be routed through the instruments.  Today, highly flexible and miniature sensors are are being incorporated in other industries due to today’s demands of smaller machines and tools.

MICROmote® sensors are miniaturized photoelectric Technological Alternative to Fiber Optics 2sensors with separate amplifiers that are also available with a variety of functionalities. Their highly flexible, electric sensor cables make them a genuine technical alternative to conventional fiber optics. The photoelectric sensor heads have extraordinarily small dimensions, excellent technical characteristics, and outstanding flexibility for application-specific solutions.

Similar to fiber optic sensors, these micro-optic photoelectric sensors function as either a through-beam or diffuse type sensor with comparable sensing ranges. Unlike fibers, the wired sensing heads are inherently bifurcated type cables so that there is only one connection to the amplifier.

Unlike conventional fiber optic cables,Technological Alternative to Fiber Optics 3 there are no significant coupling losses, minimum bending radius and cyclic bending stresses.  The patented precision elements produce extremely small beam angles with sharply defined light spots unlike standard fiber optics where the beam angle is a function of the fiber geometry.  Additional lenses must be used if the light beam of a fiber optic cable must be focused which adds to the costs.

MICROmote® photoelectric sensors for water detection use a specific wavelength at which water absorbs more light. This significantly simplifies the detection of liquids with high water content using optical sensors. The combination of an ultra-compact design and powerful micro-optics allows for reliable use in capillary tubes where other sensing devices are stretched to their limits.

These sensors can also be used as precision tube Technological Alternative to Fiber Optics 4sensors for detecting bubbles through use of either light refraction or attenuation through the air, or liquid column within the tube. They provide excellent detection for even the smallest air-to-liquid transitions and are reliable for all liquid types, even clear liquids.

In addition, these sensorsTechnological Alternative to Fiber Optics 5 are designed to detect free-floating microbubbles in transparent liquids. Microbubbles refer to little gas bubbles with dimensions smaller than the inside diameter of the tube. Uniform lighting is achieved in the liquid column by using a concentrated arrangement of multiple light beams with very uniform intensity distribution. Gas bubbles that move through this field induce a signal jump in the built-in photoelectric receiver elements

For more information on this technological alternative to fiber optics visit www.balluff.com.

The Perfect Photoelectric Sensor – Imagine No More

In my last blog, Imagine the Perfect Photoelectric Sensor, I discussed the possibilities of a single part number that could be configured for any of the basic sensing modes: through-beam, retroreflective, background suppression and diffuse. This perfect sensor would also have the ability to change the sensing mode on the fly and download the required parameters for a changing process or format change.  Additionally, it would have the ability to teach the sensing switch points on the fly, change the hysteresis, and have variable counter and time delays.

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Tomorrow is here today! There is no need to imagine any longer, technology has taken another giant leap forward in the photoelectric world.  Imagine the possibilities!

Below are just some of the features of this leading edge technology sensor. OEM’s now have the opportunity to have one sensor solve multiple applications.  End users can now reduce their spare inventory.

To learn more visit www.balluff.com.

 

Imagine the Perfect Photoelectric Sensor

Photoelectric sensors have been around for a long time and have made huge advancements in technology since the 1970’s.  We have gone from incandescent bulbs to modulated LED’s in red light, infrared and laser outputs.  Today we have multiple sensing modes like through-beam, diffuse, background suppression, retroreflective, luminescence, distance measuring and the list goes on and on.  The outputs of the sensors have made leaps from relays to PNP, NPN, PNP/NPN, analog, push/pull, triac, to having timers and counters and now they can communicate on networks.

The ability of the sensor to communicate on a network such as IO-Link is now enabling sensors to be smarter and provide more and more information.  The information provided can tell us the health of the sensor, for example, whether it needs re-alignment to provide us better diagnostics information to make troubleshooting faster thus reducing downtimes.  In addition, we can now distribute I/O over longer distances and configure just the right amount of IO in the required space on the machine reducing installation time.

IO-Link networks enable quick error free replacement of sensors that have failed or have been damaged.  If a sensor fails, the network has the ability to download the operating parameters to the sensor without the need of a programming device.

With all of these advancements in sensor technology why do we still have different sensors for each sensing mode?  Why can’t we have one sensor with one part number that would be completely configurable?

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Just think of the possibilities of a single part number that could be configured for any of the basic sensing modes of through-beam, retroreflective, background suppression and diffuse. To be able to go from 30 or more part numbers to one part would save OEM’s end users a tremendous amount of money in spares. To be able to change the sensing mode on the fly and download the required parameters for a changing process or format change.  Even the ability to teach the sensing switch points on the fly, change the hysteresis, have variable counter and time delays.  Just imagine the ability to get more advanced diagnostics like stress level (I would like that myself), lifetime, operating hours, LED power and so much more.

Obviously we could not have one sensor part number with all of the different light sources but to have a sensor with a light source that could be completely configurable would be phenomenal.  Just think of the applications.  Just think outside the box.  Just imagine the possibilities.  Let us know what your thoughts are.

To learn more about photoelectric sensors, visit www.balluff.com.

The Evolving Technology of Capacitive Sensors

In my last blog post, Sensing Types of Capacitive Sensors, I discussed the basic types of capacitive sensors; flush versions for object detection and non-flush for level detection of liquids or bulk materials.  In this blog post, I would like to discuss how the technology for capacitive sensors has changed over the past few years.

The basic technology of most capacitive sensors on the market was discussed in the blog post “What is a Capacitive Sensor”.  The sensors determine the presence of an object based on the dielectric constant of the object being detected.  If you are trying to detect a hidden object, then the hidden object must have a higher dielectric constant than what you are trying to “see through”.

Conductive targets present an interesting challenge to capacitive sensors as these targets have a greater capacitance and a targets dielectric constant is immaterial.  Conductive targets include metal, water, blood, acids, bases, and salt water.  Any capacitive sensor will detect the presence of these targets. However, the challenge is for the sensor to turn off once the conductive material is no longer present.  This is especially true when dealing with acids or liquids, such as blood, that adheres to the container wall as the level drops below the sensor face.

Today, enhanced sensing technology helps the sensors effectively distinguish between true liquid levels and possible interference caused by condensation, material build-up, or foaming fluids.  While ignoring these interferences, the sensors would still detect the relative change in capacitance caused by the target object, but use additional factors to evaluate the validity of the measurement taken before changing state.

These sensors are fundamentally insensitive to any non-conductive material like plastic or glass, which allows them to be utilized in level applications.  The only limitation of enhanced capacitive sensors is they require electrically conductive fluid materials with a dipole characteristic, such as water, to operate properly.

Enhanced or hybrid technology capacitive sensors work with a high-frequency oscillator whose amplitude is directly correlated with the capacitance change between the two independently acting sensing electrodes.  Each electrode independently tries to force itself into a balanced state.  That is the reason why the sensor independently measures  the capacitance of the container wall without ground reference and the capacitance of the conductivity of the liquid with ground reference (contrary to standard capacitive sensors).

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Up to this point, capacitive sensors have only been able to provide a discrete output, or if used in level applications for a point level indication.  Another innovative change to capacitive sensor technology is the ability to use a remote amplifier.  Not only does this configuration allow for capacitive sensors to be smaller, for instance 4mm in diameter, since the electronics are remote, they can provide additional functionality.

The remote sensor heads are available in a number of configurations including versions image2that can withstand temperature ranges of -180°C up to 250°C.  The amplifiers can now provide the ability to not only have discrete outputs but communicate over an IO-Link network or provide an analog output.  Now imagine the ability to have an adhesive strip sensor that can provide an analog output based on a non-metallic tanks level.

For additional information on the industry’s leading portfolio of capacitive products visit www.balluff.com.

Sensing Types of Capacitive Sensors

Similar to inductive sensors, capacitive sensors are available in two basic versions.  The first type is the flush or shielded or embeddable version however with capacitive sensors they are sometimes referred to as object detection sensors.  The second type is the non-flush or non-shielded or non-embeddable version however again with capacitive sensors they are sometimes referred to as level detection sensors.

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The flush or object detection capacitive sensors are shielded and employ a straight line electrostatic field.  This focused field is emitted only from the front face of the sensor allowing the sensor to be mounted in material so that only the face of the sensor is visible.

The highly focused electrostatic field is perfect for detecting small amounts of material or material with low dielectric constant.  The typical range of a flush 18mm capacitive sensor is approximately 2 to 8mm depending on the objects dielectric constant.  As with any capacitive sensor the sensor should be adjusted after installation.

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If the sensors are mounted adjacent to each other the minimum gap should be equal to the diameter or the adjusted sensing distance whichever is less.  These sensors can also be mounted opposing each other however the distance should four times the diameter of the adjusted sensing distance whichever is less.

CapacitiveTypes3Shielded or flush capacitive sensors are perfect for detecting solids or liquids through non-metallic container walls up to 4mm thick.  If you are detecting liquid levels through a sight glass with the sight glass mounting bracket then the flush mounted sensor is the preferred choice.

CapacitiveTypes4The non-flush or level detection capacitive sensors are not shielded and employ a spherical electrostatic field.  This field is emitted from the front face of the sensor and wraps around to the sides of the sensor head.  Unlike the flush sensor this version cannot be mounted in material where only the face of the sensor is visible.  Non-flush sensors have better characteristics and better performance in applications with adhering media.

CapacitiveTypes5The spherical electrostatic field provides a larger active surface and is perfect for detecting bulk material and liquid either directly or indirectly.  The typical range of a flush 18mm capacitive sensor is approximately 2 to 15mm depending on the objects dielectric constant.  As with any capacitive sensor the sensor should be adjusted after installation.

CapacitiveTypes6If the sensors are mounted adjacent to each other the minimum gap should be equal to three times the diameter or the adjusted sensing distance whichever is less.  These sensors can also be mounted opposing each other however the distance should four times the diameter of the adjusted sensing distance whichever is less.

Shielded or flush capacitive sensors are perfect for detecting solids or liquids through non-metallic container walls up to 4mm thick.  If you are detecting liquid levels through a sight glass with the sight glass mounting bracket then the flush mounted sensor is the preferred choice.

Capacitive sensors are perfect for short range detection of virtually any object regardless of color, texture, and material.

To learn more about capacitive sensors visit www.balluff.com.

What is a Capacitive Sensor?

Capacitive proximity sensors are non-contact devices that can detect the presence or absence of virtually any object regardless of material.  They utilize the electrical property of capacitance and the change of capacitance based on a change in the electrical field around the active face of the sensor.

Capacitive sensing technology is often used in other sensing technologies such as:

  • flow
  • pressure
  • liquid level
  • spacing
  • thickness
  • ice detection
  • shaft angle or linear position
  • dimmer switches
  • key switches
  • x-y tablet
  • accelerometers

Principle of operation

A capacitive sensor acts like a simple capacitor.  A metal plate in the sensing face of the sensor is electrically connected to an internal oscillator circuit and the target to be sensed acts as the second plate of the capacitor.  Unlike an inductive sensor that produces an electromagnetic field a capacitive sensor produces an electrostatic field.

The external capacitance between the target and the internal sensor plate forms a part of the feedback capacitance in the oscillator circuit.  As the target approaches the sensors face the oscillations increase until they reach a threshold level and activate the output.

Capacitive sensors have the ability to adjust the sensitivity or the threshold level of the oscillator.  The sensitivity adjustment can be made by adjusting a potentiometer, using an integral teach pushbutton or remotely by using a teach wire.  If the sensor does not have an adjustment method then the sensor must physically be moved for sensing the target correctly.  Increasing the sensitivity causes a greater operating distance to the target.  Large increases in sensitivity can cause the sensor to be influenced by temperature, humidity, and dirt.

There are two categories of targets that capacitive sensors can detect the first being conductive and the second is non-conductive.  Conductive targets include metal, water, blood, acids, bases, and salt water.  These targets have a greater capacitance and a targets dielectric strength is immaterial.  Unlike an inductive proximity sensor, reduction factors for various metals are not a factor in the sensors sensing distance.

The non-conductive target category acts like an insulator to the sensors electrode.  A targets dielectric constant also sometimes referred to as dielectric constant is the measure of the insulation properties used to determine the reduction factor of the sensing distance.  Solids and liquids have a dielectric constant that is greater than vacuum (1.00000) or air (1.00059).  Materials with a high dielectric constant will have a longer sensing distance.  Therefore materials with high water content, for example wood, grain, dirt and paper will affect the sensing distance.

When dealing with non-conductive targets there are three factors that determine the sensing distance.

  • The size of the active surface of the sensor – the larger the sensing face the longer the sensing distance
  • The capacitive material properties of the target object, also referred to as the dielectric constant – the higher the constant the longer the sensing distance
  • The surface area of the target object to be sensed – the larger the surface area the longer the sensing distance

Other factors that have minimal effect on the sensing distance

  • Temperature
  • Speed of the target object

Sensing range

A capacitive sensor’s maximum published sensing distance is based on a standard target that is a grounded square metal plate (Fe 360) that is 1mm thick.  The standard target must have a side length that is the diameter of the registered circle of the sensing surface or three times the rated sensing distance if the sensing distance is greater than the diameter.  Objects being detected that are not metal will have a reduction factor based on the dielectric constant of that object material.  This reduction factor must be measured to determine the actual sensing distance however there are some tables that will provide an approximation of the reduction factor.

Rated or nominal sensing distance Sn is a theoretical value that does not take into account manufacturing tolerances, operating temperatures and supply voltages.  This is typically the sensing distance listed in various manufactures catalogs and marketing material.

Effective sensing distance Sr is the switching distance of the sensor measured under specified conditions such as flush mounting, rated operating voltage Ue, temperature Ta = 23°C +/- 5°C.  The effective sensing range of capacitive sensors can be adjusted by the potentiometer, teach pushbutton or remote teach wire.

Hysteresis

Hysteresis is the difference in distance between the switch-on as the target approaches the sensing face and switch-off point as the target moves away from the sensing face.  Hysteresis is designed into sensors to prevent chatter of the output if the target was positioned at the switching point.

Hysteresis stated in % of rated sensing distance.  For example a sensor with 20mm of rated sensing distance may have a maximum hysteresis of 15% or 3mm.  Hysteresis is an independent parameter that is not a constant and will vary sensor to sensor.  There are several factors that can influence hysteresis including:

  • Sensor temperature both ambient and heat generated by the sensor being powered
  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Relative humidity
  • Mechanical stresses to the sensor housing
  • Electronic components utilized on the printed circuit board within the sensor
  • Correlated to sensitivity – higher sensitivity relates to higher rated sensing distance and a larger hysteresis

How to determine a capacitive sensor’s sensitivity

Capacitive sensors have a potentiometer or some method to set the sensor sensitivity for the particular application.  In the case of a potentiometer, the number of turns does not provide an accurate indicator of the sensors setting for a couple of important reasons.  First, most potentiometers do not have hard stops instead they have clutches so that the pot is not damaged when adjusted to the full minimum or maximum setting.  Secondly, pots do not have consistent linearity.

To determine the sensitivity of a capacitive sensor the sensing distance is measured from a grounded metal plate with a micrometer.  The plate is grounded to the negative of the power supply and the target is moved axially to the sensors face.  Move the target out of the sensing range and then move it towards the sensor face.  Stop advancing the target as soon as the output is activated.  This distance is the sensing distance of the sensor.  Moving the target away and noting when the output turns off will provide the hysteresis of the sensor.

To learn more about capacitive sensor technology visit www.balluff.com.