Sensors Business Digest Article

Sensor Companies Gain By Expanding Into Synergistic Markets and Technologies


SBD notes that, in the intensely competitive, cost-sensitive sensor industry, sensor companies can significantly improve their business opportunities by broadening the sensing technologies they offer and seeking to expand into new market segments with significant growth potential. The risk involved in expanding a companyís sensor technology portfolio and served markets can be minimized by focusing on technologies and markets/applications that complement yet extend the companyís market presence and reach.


In seeking to broaden its technology base, the sensor company should assess the costs involved in developing the technology in-house versus gaining access to the technology. While in-house development can allow for tighter control over the technology and for precisely targeting development activities at specific market/application opportunities, licensing a technology from the original developer can reduce the time and cost consumed in technology development. It is vital that new sensing technology be used as a competitive weapon aimed at specific promising markets and applications and not merely developed or acquired without regard to the benefits that it can bring to real-world applications. New sensing technology is most effective when it is developed for specific applications rather than created in isolation from the needs of the marketplace.


Hohner Corp. (Beamsville, Ontario, Canada, 905-563-4924/800-295-5693)(, a manufacturer of incremental and absolute optical encoders and systems for hazardous areas, and OEM optical  roughness, color, and fluorescence sensors/detectors, exemplifies a sensor company that is expanding its sensing technology portfolio to address a largely untapped market need.


Hohner has developed an optical sensor for measuring the composition and physical properties of fuel (such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and alcohol-based  fuel). They are working on the detailed database necessary for the fuel quality sensor, which will require about one year to develop. Potential applications for the fuel quality sensor include, for example, military and transportation vehicles, tank content measurement, and pumping fuel from a tank. Hohner has had very preliminary, informal discussions about their fuel quality sensor with an individual at a South American automotive component supplier; and they have R&D support from the Canadian government.


Walter Bloechle, Hohnerís president, noted that key target markets/applications for the fuel quality sensor include multi-fuel (e.g., alcohol/gasoline) military vehicles or agricultural engines, as well as high-powered engines. Adjustment of the timing of fuel injection based on the composition of the fuel can result in improved vehicle performance and reduced pollution. Moreover, the fuel quality sensor could potentially help safeguard against contamination of diesel fuel, or help ensure that gas pumped at the station contains the level of octane as specified at the pump.


Hohner has noted that diesel engines are used in numerous transportation vehicles in North America, such as trucks, trains, ships, as well as in stationary power generators. In Europe, diesel engines are widely used in light vehicles. Although new developments in diesel-driven engines are underway that will make them burn cleaner, the cleanliness of diesel fuel does not only depend on the quality of the engine. The fuel itself must be free of contaminants.


Hohner notes that even minor amounts of contaminants can easily corrode engines, drastically reduce efficiency and, ultimately, create excessive pollution. Diesel fuel can become contaminated in many ways. For example, water will accumulate if diesel fuel sits for a long time; and the purity of diesel fuel is eventually reduced as a result of distributing diesel fuel from one container to another. This problem is difficult to control. However, a sensor can be mounted on fuel pumps and trucks to constantly measure the purity, so one will at least know when the fuel is causing damage or the engine can be adjusted.


The fuel quality sensor measures the optical properties polarization, refraction, and color to provide a non-destructive means of measuring the purity of diesel fuel or other types of fuel. There are many different types of diesel fuel; and, Hohner notes, their country-specific regulations for the contents of diesel fuel.


The fuel quality sensor could be configured for digital or wireless communications, and the sensor purportedly can be used with any type of fuel or liquid. Since the measurement principles for liquids are temperature-sensitive, the ability to account for temperature is integrated in the sensor.


The polarization state of light is measured using two LEDs (light emitting diodes), two phototransistors, and a polarization filter for each LED. The polarization state of light has two parameters: the real part of complex refractive index depends on absorption; and the image portion of complex refractive index depends on conductivity. These two parameters are unique for every material. Rotation is used to determine the calibration values; and (as in the refraction measurement) calibration is performed using a microchip via a UART protocol.


Refraction index is measured using two differential reading systems; comprised of two LEDS and two photodiodes. The invention is based on Snellís Law: n1 sinq1 = n2 sinq2: where n1 is the refractive index of the surrounding medium, n2 is the refractive index of the substance being measured, and q1 is the angle at which the electromagnetic wave  touches a substance with respect to the normal angle and q2 is the angle at which it goes in to the liquid with respect to the normal angle.


Color is measured using four reading systems that include four LEDS and four photodiodes. An output can be created over the entire visible spectra.


The fuel quality sensor combines all the measurement principles (polarization, refraction, and color), and uses four LEDs and four photodiodes. Measurements are undertaken sequentially to avoid overlapping from the emitted light. This scheme also helps maintain low power consumption. The sensor is in the sleep mode until it is activated.


The development of the fuel quality sensor was originally given impetus after a large supplier of fluid power, industrial/commercial controls, and automotive components and systems wanted a device to detect water when diesel fuel is pumped out of a barrel into a tank. Hohner underscored that it is vital to know the composition of different types of fuels to help optimize transportation vehicle or equipment performance and determine the environmental impact of such fuels. He sees the fuel quality sensor having particular potential for use in military vehicle engines (such as tanks) that could use various types of fuel (such as alcohol-based fuel produced from sugar cane). For higher-volume applications (above around 10,000-20,000 units annually), Hohner would be amenable to licensing its fuel quality sensor technology to a component supplier.


U.S. demand for diesel engines and parts exceeded $13.8 billion in 2000 and is projected to approach $17.5 billion in 2005, representing an annual growth rate of 4.8%, according to The Freedonia Groupís (Cleveland, OH, 440-684-9600) Diesel Engine & Parts study. U.S. demand for diesel engines and parts used in motor vehicles totaled about $7.2 billion in 2000 and is projected to increase 4.5% per annum to exceed $8.9 billion in 2005. About 95% of the U.S. motor vehicle market for diesel engines/parts is accounted for by truck engines and parts (particularly engines for heavy-duty, class 8 truck engines).


U.S. demand for gasoline and other fuel additives (oxygenates and specialty additives) exceeded $9.9 billion in 2001 and is projected to rise 4.8% annually to approach $12.6 billion in 2006, according to Freedoniaís Gasoline & Other Fuel Additives study. U.S. demand for ethanol totaled about $3.15 billion in 2001 and is projected to rise 20.7% per annum to approach $8.1 billion in 2006. U.S. demand for biodiesel fuel totaled $35 million in 2001 and is expected to rise 30% per annum to reach $130 million in 2006. U.S. demand for specialty fuel additives totaled $1.2 billion in 2001 and is anticipated to rise 5.7% annually to approach $1.6 billion in 2006.