By Chris Lyden, President of PAS
For the past few years process automation industry geeks like me have been buzzing over the potential opportunities inherent in wireless sensing technologies. We envision sensors everywhere, often making measurements that would only be possible because the sensors are cheap to purchase and install. But we also know that there are additional advances required before these technologies can reach their full potential. High on the list are improvements in battery technologies.
Our current vision of ubiquitous wireless sensors is largely enabled by batteries. But, all batteries require periodic replacement and disposal. In fact, even if batteries in industrial sensor networks last five years, the cost to replace and dispose of them is staggering. Some estimates place these costs for already-installed industrial wireless networks at over two billion dollars per year! Energy harvesting technologies such as electro-active polymers and nano-generators may eventually offer solutions to these problems, but not anytime soon. We impatient engineers want a solution right away.
Exciting new super-capacitor technologies being developed by researchers at MIT offer a viable solution to these problems. Repeated charging and discharging of batteries causes them to lose capacity over time, which necessitates their replacement and disposal. An alternative to batteries are capacitors, which are storage devices for electric charge that do not have the same propensity to degrade. Until now however, capacitors have had a major drawback. Their relative size was much larger than a battery of equal capacity. Their footprint was just too big to allow them to serve as a direct replacement.
This is where the MIT technology comes in. They covered the plates of a capacitor with millions of tiny filaments called nano-tubes. Each filament is 30,000 times thinner than a human hair, and collectively they dramatically increase the effective surface area of the capacitor’s plates, allowing them to store more energy in smaller footprint.
By now, you must be asking yourself “Why in the world does anyone at PAS give a hoot about batteries, and sensors, and super-capacitors?” Well, these technologies are very likely to create substantial increased demand for our Integrity software. Here’s why.
Historically, there has been a mutually reinforcing (autocatalytic) relationship between the number of installed I/O and the number of applications running in a plant. As I/O costs decline, justification of new applications that use I/O becomes easier. More installed applications in-turn drive demand for I/O. The anticipated, broad proliferation of low-cost wireless measurements, enabled by our nano-tube super-capacitors and other breakthroughs, will most likely drive many new applications.
PAS’ concept of Automation Genome™ mapping is in a very real sense the result of years of growth in measurements and applications. The essence of the concept is that the building blocks of modern automation systems (i.e. points, parameters, registers, bits, display elements, etc.) are the electronic analogue to DNA and genes in organic life forms. However, unlike organic life forms whose genomes morph slowly over very long periods of time, automation genomes morph daily as loops are tuned, alarms are disabled, and parameters are changed. Also unlike the genomes of organic life forms, automation genomes often share their “genetic material” (parameters) with other, foreign automation systems (species) creating an inter-related, collective genome that is the sum of the parameters of all interoperating systems.
Changes in the genome of one system often propagate to the other inter-connected systems, creating configuration mismatches. For example, a change to a register in a safety instrumented system would likely create mismatches on several graphic displays, the DCS control logic, and the historian too. So, as the level of interconnectivity between installed systems, the number of integrated measurements and, the number of applications all increase, the automation genome of the plant becomes incredibly complex. Mapping and managing this dynamic complexity becomes untenable for mere mortals.
PAS’ Integrity software is the answer to this problem. It’s the only product in the market that maps dissimilar genomes into a common, collective genome. As the number of measurements and genome complexity increases, the market demand for Integrity will increase with them. That is why we care about nano-tube super-capacitors.