Detecting Fill Levels With Direct Contact and Non-contact Capacitive Sensors

Capacitive sensors are commonly used in level detection applications. Specific capacitive sensors can supply better solutions than others depending on the type of media you may be detecting and if the sensor will be in direct contact with that media. Keep reading to decide which type works best for different application solutions.

Non-contact capacitive sensors

Capacitive sensors are great for monitoring the fill level of non-conductive materials. In many cases, the capacitive sensor doesn’t need to physically touch the media it is detecting; rather, it can sit outside a thin, non-metal container or pipe. As the level rises or falls, the capacitive sensor can signal if the medium is there. Since non-contact capacitive sensors sit outside the medium, there shouldn’t be any interference or false readings from direct contact with the material.

Selecting the correct capacitive sensor for these applications is important. While you don’t have to risk contaminating the sensor face (and getting a false read) in non-contact applications, you need to keep in mind other factors that can cause a sensor to false trip. One thing that is important to keep in mind with externally mounted capacitive sensors is that viscous materials can still leave a layer of residue on the inside walls of tanks or basins. While the sensor face is not covered, if you select the wrong type of sensor this build up on the wall can cause a false reading (such as reading as reading the tank as full when it is actually half-empty).

Another thing to keep in mind when selecting the correct capacitive sensor for a non-contact application is foam. In applications such as bottling beer in glass bottles, most standard capacitive sensors will detect presence once that layer of foam reaches the sensor face. While the foam may be at the sensor face, the bottle could still be only half way full of actual liquid. Making sure you select a sensor that can account for things like foam is something to keep in mind as well.

There are many benefits when using non-contact capacitive sensors in fill level applications. Not every application requires direct contact with the medium, and not every application even allows for the medium to be touched directly. There are many capacitive sensors in many form factors that are used every day for fill level applications, but making sure the right sensor is selected is important.

Contact with media capacitive sensors

In certain applications, the capacitive sensor will only be able to detect the fill level of a container, pipe, or tank if it is in direct contact with the media it’s trying to sense.

For various reasons, a sensor must be in direct contact with a media like oil, paint, powder, or paste. You may need to place a sensor directly in a tank because the tank is made of metal, or possibly because the walls of the tank are too thick for a capacitive sensor to sense through. Direct contact applications can be difficult to find solutions for if you are not aware of what capacitive sensors are capable of.

There is a way to fix issues such as false tripping in sticky substances.

Advanced technologies allow for capacitive sensors that mask residual build-up or foam when sensing in direct media contact. These level-sensing capacitive sensors are great for applications in the food and beverage industry and for detecting practically all the same materials as non-contact capacitive sensors. In areas of detection where adhesive substances may stick to the sensor face is a perfect application for direct contact capacitive sensors. Some typical direct-contact applications include areas such as vegetable oil or ketchup container fill levels, hydraulic oil levels in a hydraulic cylinder, or even the amount of flour in a container.

For instance, if you stick a capacitive sensor inside a tank of oil to monitor the fill level, the sensor face will get covered in the oil. As the level in the tank drops below the sensor face, that oil will remain on the face. So, even if the tank is empty, the sensor will always detect something. With specialized capacitive sensors that ignore build-up, adhesive or viscous media that typically influence detection is no longer a concern.

Another use for capacitive sensors that allow for direct media contact is for leak detection. If a tank, pipe, or tub is known to leak, there are capacitive sensors that can be mounted to the ground in the area that puddles form. In some instances you know a machine could potentially leak, and puddles form in an area you can’t regularly see, which is where these sensors are perfect for application. Depending on the situation, some of these sensors can be mounted a couple millimeters to an inch off the ground waiting for a leak. As a puddle forms and reaches the sensor’s switching range, maintenance can be alerted of the issue and work to fix it.

Reduce time and costs associated with manual level-checking

Another application for a capacitive sensor with direct media contact capabilities is within the automotive industry. Inside the painting process of an assembly plant, for example, you must be able to monitor the fill levels of the e-coat, the primer, the base coat, and the clear-coat paint tanks. Without a sensor to determine the fill levels, the time and energy and dollars it can cost the workforce to manually check the fill levels can be high.. Luckily, these contact-capacitive sensors can monitor viscous media like paint, reducing the time and costs associated with manual level-checking.

While non-contact and contact capacitive sensors perform the similar functions, they are used in different applications. Some applications allow a sensor to sit outside a container or tank and detect through the walls, while others require direct contact. Now that you understand the differences and their strong points of application, you can determine which sensor is best for you.

On the Level: Selecting the Right Sensor for Level Detection

We’ve probably all experienced having the “pot boil over” or “run dry” at one time or another. The same is frequently true on a much larger scale with many industrial processes. These large events can prove costly whether running dry or overflowing, resulting in lost product, lost production time, damage to the tank, or even operator injury. And then there is the cleanup!

The fact is, many procedures require the operator to monitor the bin or tank level – especially on older equipment. This human factor is prone to fail due to inattention, distractions, and lack of proper training. With today’s employee turnover and the brain drain of retirements, we need to help the operators out.

Multiple solutions exist that can provide operators with sufficient warning of the tank and bin levels being either too low or too high. This article provides a framework and checklist to guide the selection of the best technology for a specific application.

What type of monitoring is necessary?

First, consider whether the application requires or would benefit from continuous monitoring, or is point-level monitoring all that is needed?

    • Point-level monitoring is the simplest. It is essentially sensing whether the product is present at specific detection point(s) in the tank or bin. If the goal is to avoid running dry or overflowing, monitoring the bin or tank point level may be all that is required. Point-level sensors typically are best if the product levels can be detected through the wall or inside the tank or bin itself. A number of sensors can prevent false readings with products that are viscous, leaving residue on the sensor, and even ignore foam.
    • Continuous-level monitoring detects levels along a range – from full to empty. This is required when the exact level of the product must be known, such as for batch mixing.

Checklist for sensor selection

The checklist below can help guide you to what should be the appropriate technologies to consider for your particular application. Frequently, more than one type of technology may work, given the media (or product) you’re detecting, so it may make sense to test more than one.

Checklist for sensor selection

Ultimately, the sensor(s) you select must reliably sense/detect the presence of the subject product (or media). Which solution is least costly is frequently a big consideration, but remember there can be a hefty cost associated with a sensor that gives a false reading to the operator or control system.

Choosing sensors for washdown or clean-in-place environments

For products that will be consumed or entered into the human body, further selection considerations may include sensors that must survive in washdown or clean-in-place environments without contaminating the product.

The encouraging news is that sensors exist for most applications to detect product levels reliably. The finesse is in selecting the best for a given application when multiple technologies can do the job.

Again, there may be some trial and error at play but this checklist should at least narrow the field and pointed you to the better solution/technology.

Choosing a Contactless Sensor to Measure Objects at a Distance

Three options come to mind for determining which contactless sensor to use when measuring objects at a distance: photoelectric sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and radar detection. Understanding the key differences among these types of technologies and how they work can help you decide which technology will work best for your application.

Photoelectric sensor

The photoelectric sensor has an emitter that sends out a light source. Then a receiver receives the light source. The common light source LED (Light Emitting Diodes), has three different types:

    • Visible light (usually red light) has the shortest wavelength, but allows for easy installment and alignment as the light can be seen.
    • Lasers are amplified beams that can deliver a large amount of energy over a distance into a small spot, allowing for precise measurement.
    • Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than visible light, generally making them invisible to the humans. This allows for infrared to be used in harsher environments that contain particles in the air.

Along with three types of LEDs, are three models of photoelectric sensors:

    • The retro-reflective sensor model includes both an emitter and receiver in one unit and a reflector across from it. The emitter sends the light source to the reflector which then reflects the light back to the receiver. When an object comes between the reflector and the emitter, the light source cannot be reflected.
    • The through-beam sensor has an emitter and receiver in two separate units installed across from the emitter. When an object breaks the light beam, the receiver cannot receive the light source.
    • The diffuse sensor includes an emitter and receiver built into one unit. Rather than having a reflector installed across from it the light source is reflective off the object back to the receiver.

The most common application for photoelectric sensors is in detecting part presence or absence. Photoelectric sensors do not work well in environments that have dirt, dust, or vibration. They also do not perform well with detecting clear or shiny objects.

Ultrasonic sensor

The ultrasonic sensor has an emitter that sends a sound wave at a frequency higher than what a human can hear to the receiver.  The two modes of an ultrasonic sensor include:

    • Echo mode, also known as a diffused mode, has an emitter and receiver built into the same unit. The object detection works with this mode is that the emitter sends out the sound wave, the wave then bounces off the target and returns to the receiver. The distance of an object can be determined by timing how long it takes for the sound wave to bounce back to the receiver.
    • The second type of mode is the opposed mode. The opposed mode has the emitter and receiver as two separate units. Object detection for this mode works by the emitter will be set up across from the receiver and will be sending sound waves continuously and an object will be detected once it breaks the field, similarly to how photoelectric sensors work.

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors include liquid level detection, uneven surface level detection, and sensing clear or transparent objects. They can also be used as substitutes for applications that are not suitable for photoelectric sensors.

Ultrasonic sensors do not work well, however, in environments that have foam, vapors, and dust. The reason for this is that ultrasonic uses sound waves need a medium, such as air, to travel through. Particles or other obstructions in the air interfere with the sound waves being produced. Also, ultrasonic sensors do not work in vacuums which don’t contain air.

Radar detection

Radar is a system composed of a transmitter, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna, a receiver, and a processor. It works like a diffuse mode ultrasonic sensor. The transmitter sends out a wave, the wave echoes off an object, and the receiver receives the wave. Unlike a sound wave, the radar uses pulsed or continuous radio waves. These wavelengths are longer than infrared light and can determine the range, angle, and velocity of objects. radar also has a processor that determines the properties of the object.

Common applications for radar include speed and distance detection, aircraft detection, ship detection, spacecraft detection, and weather formations. Unlike ultrasonic sensors, radar can work in environments that contain foam, vapors, or dust. They can also be used in vacuums. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic waves that do not require a transmission medium to travel. An application in which radar does not perform well is detecting dry powders and grains. These substances have low dielectric constants, which are usually non-conductive and have low amounts of moisture.

Choosing from an ultrasonic sensor, photoelectric sensor, or radar comes down to the technology being used. LEDs are great at detecting part presences and absence of various sizes. Sound waves are readily able to detect liquid levels, uneven surfaces, and part presence. Electromagnetic waves can be used in environments that include particles and other substances in the air. It also works in environments where air is not present at all. One technology is not better than the other; each has its strengths and its weaknesses. Where one cannot work, the others typically can.

Looking Into & Through Transparent Material With Photoelectric Sensors

Advance automated manufacturing relies on sensor equipment to ensure each step of the process is done correctly, reliably, and effectively. For many standard applications, inductive, capacitive, or basic photoelectric sensors can do a fine job of monitoring and maintaining the automated manufacturing process. However, when transparent materials are the target, you need a different type of sensor, and maybe even need to think differently about how you will use it.

What are transparent materials?

When I think of transparent materials, water, glass, plexiglass, polymers, soaps, cooling agents, and packaging all come to mind. Because transparent material absorbs very little of the emitted red LED light, standard photoelectric sensors struggle on this type of application. If light can make its way back to the receiver, how can you tell if the beam was broken or not? By measuring the amount of light returned, instead of just if it is there or not, we can detect a transparent material and learn how transparent it is.

Imagine being able to determine proper mixes or thicknesses of liquid based on a transparency scale associated to a value of returned light. Another application that I believe a transparent material photoelectric senor would be ideal for is the thickness of a clear bottle. Imagine the wall thickness being crucial to the integrity of the bottle. Again, we would measure the amount of light allowed back to the receiver instead of an expensive measurement laser or even worse, a time-draining manual caliper.

Transparent material sensor vs. standard photoelectric sensor

So how does a transparent material sensor differ from a standard photoelectric sensor? Usually, the type of light is key. UV light is absorbed much greater than other wavelengths, like red or blue LEDs you find in standard photoelectric sensors. To add another level, you polarize that UV light to better control the light back into the receiver. Polarized UV light with a polarized reflector is the best combination. This can be done on a large or micro scale based on the sensor head size and build.

Uses for transparent material sensor include packaging trays, level tubes, medical tests, adhesive extrusion, and bottle fill levels, just to name a few. Transparent materials are everywhere, and the technology has matured. Make sure you are looking into specialized sensor technologies and working through best set-up practices to ensure reliable detection of transparent materials.

Why Use Ultrasonic Sensors?

by Nick Smith

When choosing what sensor to use in different applications, it is important to first look at how they operate. Capacitive sensors generate an electrical field that can detect various liquids or other materials, such as glass, wood, paper, ceramic, and more at a close. Photoelectric sensors emit a light beam that is either received by a light sensor or bounced back to the emitter to detect an object’s presence or measure the distance to an object. Ultrasonic sensors bounce a sound wave off objects to detect them, which can make them a good solution for a surprising variety of uses.

How ultrasonic sensors operate

Ultrasonic sensors operate by emitting an ultra-high frequency sound wave that ranges from 300 MHz to 3 GHz, which is well above the 15-17 kHz range that humans can hear that bounces off the target object. The sensor measures the amount of time that sound wave takes to return to calculate the distance to the object. Ultrasonic sensors send these sound waves in a wider beam than a photoelectric uses, so they can more easily detect objects in a dusty or dirty environment. And with a greater sensing distance than capacitive sensors, they can be installed at a safe distance and still function effectively

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors

These capabilities together make ultrasonic sensors a great choice for tasks like detecting fill level, stack height and object presence. Sound waves are unaffected by the color, transparency, or consistency of an object or liquid, which makes it an obvious contender in the packaging, food, and beverage industry and many other industries with similar manufacturing processes.

So to monitor glass bottles as they travel on a conveyor, an ultrasonic sensor could be a good choice. These sensors will consistently work well detecting clear or reflective materials such as water, paint, glass, etc., which can cause difficulties for photoelectric sensors. Another benefit of these sensors is the ability to mount them further away from their targets. For example, there are ultrasonics that can be mounted between 20 to 8000 mm away from the object. After tuning your setup, you can detect very small objects as easily as larger, more visible items.

Another common application for ultrasonic sensors is monitoring boxes. Properly implemented ultrasonic sensors can detect different sizes of boxes as they travel on a conveyor belt by constantly emitting and receiving sound waves. This means that each box or object will be measured by the sound wave. Different photoelectric and capacitive sensors may fail to detect the full presence of an object and may only be able to detect a specific point on an object.

When it comes to all types of different fill-level applications, there are many ways a sensor can monitor various liquids and solids. The width of an ultrasonic beam can be increased to detect a wider area of solid material in a hopper or decreased to give a precise measurement on liquid levels. This ability to detect a smaller or larger surface area gives the user more utility when deciding how to meet the requirements of an application. Although capacitive sensors can detect fill levels very precisely as well, factors like beam width and sensing distance might make ultrasonic a better choice.

With so many different sensor technologies available and factors like target material and sensing distance being such important factors, choosing the best sensor for an application can be demanding. A trusted expert who is familiar with these different technologies and the factors related to your applications and materials can help you confidently move toward the smart factory of the future.

Capacitive Prox Sensors Offer Versatility for Object and Level Detection

When you think of a proximity sensor, what is the first thing that comes to mind? In most cases it is probably the inductive proximity sensor and justly so because they are the most widely used sensor in automation today. But there are other types of proximity sensors. These include diffuse photoelectric sensors that use the reflectivity of the object to change states and proximity mode of ultrasonic sensors that use high frequency sound waves to detect objects. All of these sensors detect objects that are in close proximity of the sensor without making physical contact.

One of the most overlooked proximity sensors on the market today is the capacitive sensor. Why? For some, they have bad reputation from when they were released years ago as they were more susceptible to noise than most sensors. I have heard people say that they don’t discuss or use capacitive sensors because they had this bad experience in the past, however with the advancements of technology this is no longer the case.

Today capacitive sensors are available in as wide of a variety of housings and configurations as inductive sensors. They are available as small as 4mm in diameter, in hockey puck styles, extended temperature ranges, rectangular, square, with Teflon housings, remote sensing heads, adhesive cut-to-length for level detection and a hybrid technology that is capable of ignoring foaming and filming of liquids. The capability and diversity of this technology is constantly evolving.

Capacitive sensors are versatile in solving numerous 1applications. These sensors can be used to detect objects such as glass, wood, paper, plastic, ceramic, and the list goes on and on. The capacitive sensors used to detect objects are easily identified by the flush mounting or shielded face of the sensor. Shielding causes the electrostatic field to be short conical shaped much like the shielded version of the inductive proximity sensor. Typically, the sensing range for these sensors is up to 20 mm.

Just as there are non-flush or unshielded inductive sensors, there are non-flush capacitive sensors, and the mounting and housing2 looks the same. The non-flush capacitive sensors have a large spherical field which allows them to be used in level detection. Since capacitive sensors can detect virtually anything, they can detect levels of liquids including water, oil, glue and so forth and they can detect levels of solids like plastic granules, soap powder, sand and just about anything else. Levels can be detected either directly with the sensor touching the medium or indirectly where the sensor senses the medium through a non-metallic container wall. The sensing range for these sensors can be up to 30 mm or in the case of the hybrid technology it is dependent on the media.

The sensing distance of a capacitive sensor is determined by several factors including the sensing face area – the larger the better. The next factor is the material property of the object or dielectric constant, the higher the dielectric constant the greater the sensing distance. Lastly the size of the target affects the sensing range. Just like an inductive sensor you want the target to be equal to or larger than the sensor. The maximum sensing distance of a capacitive sensor is based on a metal target thus there is a reduction factor for non-metal targets.

As with most sensors today, the outputs of a capacitive sensor include PNP, NPN, push-pull, analog and the increasing popular IO-Link. IO-Link provides remote configuration, additional diagnostics and a window into what the sensor is “seeing”. This is invaluable when working on an application that is critical such as life sciences.

Most capacitive sensors have a potentiometer to allow adjustment of the sensitivity of the sensor to reliably detect the target. Today there are versions that have teach pushbuttons or a teach wire for remote configuration or even a remote amplifier. Although capacitive sensors can detect metal, inductive sensors should be used for these applications. Capacitive sensors are ideal for detecting non-metallic objects at close ranges, usually less than 30 mm and for detecting hidden or inaccessible materials or features.

Just remember, there is one more proximity sensor. Don’t overlook the capabilities of the capacitive sensor.

Reviewing options for optimized level detection in the food & beverage industry

Level detection plays an important role in the food and beverage industry, both in production and filling. Depending on the application, there are completely different requirements for level detection and, therefore, different requirements for the technologies and sensors to solve each task.

In general, we can differentiate between two requirements — Do I want to continuously monitor my filling level so that I can make a statement about the current level at any time? Or do I want to know if my filling level has reached the minimum or maximum?

Let’s look at both requirements and the appropriate level sensors and technologies in detail.

Precisely detecting point levels

For point level detection we have three different options.

A through-beam fork sensor on the outside of the tank is well suited for transparent container walls and very special requirements. Very accurate and easy to install, it is a good choice for critical filling processes while also being suitable for foaming materials.

Image 1
One point level detection through transparent container walls

For standard applications and non-metallic tank walls, capacitive sensors, which can be mounted outside the tank, are often the best choice. These sensors work by detecting the change of the relative electric permittivity. The measurement does not take place in direct contact with the medium.

Figure 2
Minimum/maximum level detection with capacitive sensors

For applications with metal tanks, there are capacitive sensors, which can be mounted inside the tank. Sensors, which meet the special requirements for cleanability (EHEDG, IP69K) and food contact material (FCM) required in the food industry,  are mounted via a thread and a sealing element inside the tank. For conductive media such as ketchup, specially developed level sensors can be used which ignore the adhesion to the active sensor surface.

Figure 3
Capacitive sensors mounted inside the tank

Continuous level sensing

Multiple technologies can be used for continuous level sensing as well. Choosing the best one depends on the application and the task.

Continuous level detection can also be solved with the capacitive principle. With the aid of a capacitive adhesive sensor, the level can be measured from the outside of the tank without any contact with the sensor. The sensor can be easily attached to the tank without the use of additional accessories. This works best for tanks up to 850 mm.

Figure 4
Continuous level detection with a capacitive sensor head

If you have fast and precise filling processes, the magnetostrictive sensing principle is the right choice. It offers very high measuring rate and accuracy. It can be used for tank heights from 200 mm up to several meters. Made especially for the food and beverage  industry, the sensor has the Ecolab, 3A and FDA certifications. Thanks to corrosion-free stainless steel, the sensor is safe for sterilization (SIP) and cleaning (CIP) in place.

Figure 5
Level detection via magnetostrictive sensing principle

If the level must be continuously monitored from outside the tank, hydrostatic pressure sensors are suitable. Available with a triclamp flange for hygienic demands, the sensor is mounted at the bottom of the tank and the level is indirectly measured through the pressure of the liquid column above the sensor.

Figure 6
Level detection via hydrostatic pressure sensor

Level detection through ultrasonic sensors is also perfect for the hygienic demands in the food industry. Ultrasonic sensors do not need a float, are non-contact and wear-free, and installation at the top of the tank is easy. Additionally, they are insensitive to dust and chemicals. There are even sensors available which can be used in pressurized tanks up to 6 bar.

Figure 7
Level detection via ultrasonic sensor

Product bundle for level monitoring in storage tanks

On occasion, both types of level monitoring are required. Take this example.

The tanks in which a liquid is stored at a food manufacturer are made of stainless steel. This means the workers are not able to recognize whether the tanks are full or empty, meaning they can’t tell when the tanks need to be refilled to avoid production downtime.

The solution is an IO-Link system which consists of different filling sensors and a light to visualize the filling level. With the help of a pressure sensor attached to the bottom of the tanks, the level is continuously monitored. This is visualized by a machine light so that the employee can see how full the tank is when passing by. The lights indicate when the tank needs to be refilled, while a capacitive sensor indicates when the tank is full eliminating overfilling and material waste.

Figure 8
Level monitoring in storage tanks

To learn more about solutions for level detection visit balluff.com

Back to the Basics: Object Detection

In the last post about the Basics of Automation, we discussed how humans act as a paradigm for automation. Now, let’s take a closer look at how objects can be detected, collected and positioned with the help of sensors.

Sensors can detect various materials such as metals, non-metals, solids and liquids, all completely without contact. You can use magnetic fields, light and sound to do this. The type of material you are trying to detect will determine the type of sensor technology that you will use.

Object Detection 1

Types of Sensors

  • Inductive sensors for detecting any metallic object at close range
  • Capacitive sensors for detecting the presence of level of almost any material and liquid at close range
  • Photoelectric sensors such as diffuse, retro-reflective or through-beam detect virtually any object over greater distances
  • Ultrasonic sensors for detecting virtually any object over greater distances

Different Sensors for Different Applications

The different types of sensors used will depend on the type of application. For example, you will use different sensors for metal detection, non-metal detection, magnet detection, and level detection.

Detecting Metals

If a workpiece or similar metallic objects Object Detection 2should be detected, then an inductive sensor is the best solution. Inductive sensors easily detect workpiece carriers at close range. If a workpiece is missing it will be reliably detected. Photoelectric sensors detect small objects, for example, steel springs as they are brought in for processing. Thus ensures a correct installation and assists in process continuity. These sensors also stand out with their long ranges.

Detecting Non-Metals

If you are trying to detect non-metal objects, for example, the height of paper stacks, Object Detection 3then capacitive sensors are the right choice. They will ensure that the printing process runs smoothly and they prevent transport backups. If you are checking the presence of photovoltaic cells or similar objects as they are brought in for processing, then photoelectic sensors would be the correct choice for the application.

Detecting Magnets

Object Detection 4

To make sure that blister packs are exactly positioned in boxes or that improperly packaged matches are sorted out, a magnetic field sensor is needed which is integrated into the slot. It detects the opening condition of a gripper, or the position of a pneumatic ejector.

 

Level Detection

What if you need to detect the level of granulate in containers? Then the solution is to use capacitive sensors. To accomplish this, two sensors are attached in the containers, offset from each other. A signal is generated when the minimum or maximum level is exceeded. This prevents over-filling or the level falling below a set amount. However, if you would like to detect the precise fill height of a tank without contact, then the solution would be to use an ultrasonic sensor.

Stay tuned for future posts that will cover the essentials of automation. To learn more about the Basics of Automation in the meantime, 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).

Image1

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.

Level Detection Basics – Part 2

In the first blog on level detection we discussed containers and single point and continuous level sensing.  In this edition we will discuss invasive and non-invasive sensing methods and which sensing technologies apply to each version.  Keep in mind that when we are talking about level detection the media can be a liquid, semi-solid or solid with each presenting their own challenges.

tankInvasive or direct level sensing involves the sensing device being in direct contact to the media being sensed.  This means that the container walls or any piping must be violated leading to issue number one – leakage.  In some industries such as semiconductor and medical the sensing device cannot contact the media due to the possibility of contamination.

level_btl-sf-wThe direct mounting method could simplify sensor selection and setup since the sensor only has to sense the medium or target material properties.  Nonetheless, this approach imposes certain drawbacks, such as costs for mounting and sealing the sensor as well as the need to consider the material compatibility between the sensor and the medium.  Corrosive acids, for example, might require a more expensive exotic housing material.level_bsp_w

Invasive sensing technologies that would solve level sensing applications include capacitive, linear transducers, hydrostatic with pressure sensors.

In many cases the preferred approach is indirectly or non-invasively mounting the sensor on the outside of the container.  This sensing method requires the sensor to “see” through the container walls or by looking down at the media from above the container through an opening in the top of the container.  The advantages for this approach are easier mounting, lower cost and easier to field retro-fit.  The container wall does not have to be penetrated, which leaves the level sensor flexible and interchangeable in the application.  Avoiding direct contact with the target material also reduces the chances of product contamination, leaks, and other sources of risk to personnel and the environment.

level_bglIn some cases a sight glass is used which is mounted in the wall of the tank and as the liquid media rises it flows into the sight glass.  When using a sight glass a fork style photoelectric sensor can be used or a capacitive sensor can be strapped to the sight glass.

The media also has relevance in the sensor selection process.  Medical and semiconductor applications involve mostly water-based reagents, process fluids, acids, as well as different bodily fluids.  Fortunately, high conductivity levels and therefore high relative dielectric constants are common characteristics among all these liquids.  This is why the primary advantages of capacitive sensors lie in non-invasive liquid level detection, namely by creating a large measurement delta between the low dielectric container and the target material with high dielectric properties.  At the same time, highly conductivity liquids could impose a threat to the application.  This is because smaller physical amounts of material have a larger impact on the capacitive sensor with increasing conductivity values, increasing the risk of false triggering on foam or adherence to the inside or outside wall.

Non-invasive or indirect level sensing technologies include photoelectrics, capacitive, linear transducers with a sight glass and ultrasonics.

For more information visit www.balluff.com.