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Steam Trap Sensor Provides Active RFID Without Battery

PsiKick's new self-powering sensors harvest energy from steam, vibration or ambient lighting to capture sensor data, then transmit that information to a cloud-based server for real-time and historical analytics regarding the operation of equipment.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 14, 2018

Battery-free wireless sensor technology startup PsiKick has released a product leveraging the energy of steam passing through steam traps—which capture condensation before releasing steam into the atmosphere—to power sensors that monitor the health of those same traps, then transmit that data to gateways and, ultimately, to cloud-based software via RFID technology. The resulting data helps manufacturing facilities and other companies identify how well steam traps are operating.

Several hundred PsiKick sensors are now being piloted by approximately five companies, ranging from the University of Michigan—where David Wentzloff, PsiKick's co-founder and co-CTO, is an electrical engineering professor—to a consumer goods manufacturer and chemical refinery. These companies have asked to remain unnamed.

David Wentzloff
PsiKick was launched to develop and sell a portfolio of wireless sensors that harvest energy without the need for batteries. While the steam trap sensor is the company's first product, says Brian Alessi, PsiKick's product-marketing and business-development director, it eventually expects to release others, such as sensors for vibrating motors or other machinery. Steam traps provided the new company with a promising first application, Wentzloff says, due to the maintenance management challenge they pose for companies that generate steam (manufacturers, for example), as well as regarding the availability of that steam for creating power.

Steam traps serve as valves that discharge condensates and non-condensable gases from steam. The traps generally open when condensate needs to be removed, then close when all the condensate is gone, after which the process repeats. If a steam trap malfunctions, it will typically either stay closed, which means steam could build up and create potential catastrophic hazards, or remain open, releasing the steam with the condensates as it is generated, which can result in a waste of energy.

Brian Alessi
Alessi likens this to leaving the door open to an air-conditioned home on a hot day—the air conditioner will continue to cool the home, but there will be an unnecessary expenditure of energy. It also means that condensates will be released with the steam. In fact, he says, steam traps often fail—as much as every three to five years. Traps tend to be installed throughout sections within a facility through which steam passes, which means they can be difficult to access, or may be missed by individuals tasked with maintaining them.

Companies typically dispatch a team of workers throughout the facility to check functionality about once a year. This requires that they locate every steam trap, use an ultrasonic device and headphones to listen to the steam pressure within the trap, and then decide if it is operating properly, based on that information. That process usually takes two to five minutes once the steam trap has been located, Wentzloff notes, adding that labor costs increase exponentially since an average of 200 to 5,000 steam traps must be inspected at a typical company.

There are sensors that can capture data about a steam trap's functionality in real time, and then transmit that information wirelessly. However, such devices require batteries, which must periodically be replaced—another labor-intensive process, according to Alessi. The PsiKick sensor is designed to operate without batteries. It comes with a temperature differential sensor, as well as an RF transponder, a processor, a memory and power management unit, and a capacitor to store steam energy in the event that hot steam is unavailable, and to generate the power required to operate the sensor. The sensors are built to last for about 20 years without requiring maintenance.

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