A new micromachined sensor from MEMSIC Inc. promises to measure gas flow accurately in next-generation smart meters. Introduced at the recent Sensors Expo in Chicago, the sensor targets the need for a high-resolution electronic solution for the hundreds of millions of electronic meters that will be installed in the next decade (a market we've discussed before).
"During a six-year period starting in 2014, there's going to be 24 million new smart gas meters in the UK and Italy alone," Ken Katsumoto, CE marketing manager for MEMSIC, told us. "In the US, the figure will be much higher, so there's going to be a need for new sensing technology."
Makers of smart meters will need to find an alternative to the electromechanical techniques that have long been used in gas meters. That is why MEMSIC is targeting that market. New gas meters require electronic solutions that will enable utilities to track energy use remotely, eliminating the need for visits by meter readers.
Pike Research predicts that 55 percent of the world's 1.5 billion electromechanical meters will be replaced by smart readers by 2020.
MEMSIC's sensor employs monolithic thermal technology (a variation of traditional MEMS technology) in a gas flow sensor module. The chip, built on a CMOS technology foundation, uses a tiny heater with two thermopiles located on either side. When gas flows from the inlet to the outlet of the meter, it passes by the heater, unbalancing the temperature profile around it. As heat is transferred from the upstream thermopile to the downstream thermopile, it changes the voltage in the thermopiles. The rate of heat absorbed -- and the associated voltage change -- is directly proportional to the mass flow.
Katsumoto said the traditional electromechanical methods of measuring gas flow are accurate but not well suited for implementation in smart meters. Previous MEMS-based methods did not have the high resolution that the new sensor offers. "If the reading is even 1 percent off, the gas company could lose money," he said. "It's very important to have accuracy that's at least as good as the old mechanical solution."
MEMSIC says that today's electromechanical methods of measuring gas flow are accurate but not well suited to implementation in smart meters with wireless communication capabilities. They also say that previous MEMS-based methods did not have the high resolution that the new sensor offers.
There are two price advantages, Rob, and both have to do more with operating costs than initial costs. First, utility companies don't want to send people out to read meters and turn meters on and off. That's too costly. Second, utility companies want their readings to be as accurate as possible. A 1% error multiplied by two million meters can be costly.
That's makes sense, Chuck. So what happens is the sensors help automate the collection of usage data while also making that data more accurate. So even if the sensor is more expensive, it ultimately saves dollars.
I would like to understand more about what is new with the MEMSIC's MEMS flow sensor design. This technology (heater with two thermopiles on each side) has been around for very long time, and I believe the original patent on this approach has already expired. There are a number of other companies that have released/are releasing natural gas meters based on the exact same approach, with intergrated IC. And I do not think their claim of higher resolution is reflected on their preliminary data sheet, yet.
How do you think this MEMS technology will be perceived by the utility companies? How are the MEMS natural gas meters that have already passed the certifications doing? Any buy-ins from the utility companies?
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