Add Safety and Accessibility With Remote Amplifiers

Why did the sensor cross the road?

To work remotely, of course.

Even sensors are working remotely these days, and some have good reason. Many applications dictate that the sensing element be placed remotely from its associated electronics. Let’s looks at a few common examples of this.

This may be for safety’s sake, such as in oil and gas applications where housing the bulk of the electronics away from a hazardous area reduces the likelihood of an electrical discharge, or where there are environmental concerns, such as temperature or vibration. By placing the majority of the electronics safely away, only the minimal number of components are subjected to the extremes.

Another good reason for remote placement is accessibility. In some cases, for example, the sensor must be mounted in a difficult to reach place, and having remote electronics installed in a more accessible location allows for easier access for the needed periodic re-teaching, adjusting, etc.

Separate electronics are also used when the sensing element needs to be designed into a very tight space. These very small sensor elements are likely to be customized to fit into a device directly, often leaving no room for the remainder of the electronics.

Remote placement is typically used out of necessity, but it doesn’t have to limit sensor capability or performance.

A typical amplifier with jog button, selector switch, and display.
Typical amplifier with jog button, selector switch, and display

Separately housed electronics, known as amplifiers, can do more than just house the electronics that support the sensing elements; they also provide a way to configure the sensors through buttons and displays. The amplifier delivers the smart features that larger sensors possess, without increasing the sensor size.

Let’s take a look at an amplifier designed to work with the micromote photoelectric sensors.

Micromote photoelectric sensor with 2mm diameter.
Micromote photoelectric sensor with 2mm diameter

Micromotes are extremely small photoelectric sensors that direct a very tight beam of collimated light at a target. The light emission is specifically engineered for the application, either attenuating or refracting as it interacts with the object to be detected. Many of these applications involve detecting very small bubbles in a stream of fluid, micro-bubbles that are smaller than the human eye can detect.  Others may be used to detect the edge of a microscope slide or count very small drops of liquid.  They are precision engineered to detect small objects in small spaces.

The amplifier will receive a power source, and in return it will provide power to the sensing element. But beyond the supporting electronics, what else might a good amp do?

    • Provide a choice of output types (PNP/NPN/Analog/NO/NC)
    • Supply an adequate frequency response for the fast counting of objects
    • Use LED indicators to help troubleshoot connections and warn of unstable signals
    • Provide on/off signal delays (pulse stretching) for those super fast applications
    • Allow the signal hysteresis to be adjusted to suit the application
    • Provide a way to lock the set parameters from inadvertent changes
    • Offer an alarm output if the application is out of specified limits
    • Include a display to navigate through the menus and to display signal strength when operating
    • Teach the application through the use of selector switches
    • Deliver auto synchronization

So, the next time you have a demanding application that requires a sensor to work remotely, consider a premium amplifier — one that not only supports the sensing element, but provides the smart features that today’s best sensors offer. You just might find that working remotely has many advantages, including a more integrated final product, which is more accessible to tune, and with additional features.

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.