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Energy-Harvesting Sensors to Monitor Health of Jet Engines

The wireless sensors will be utilized to monitor engine bearings on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters while in flight, using their turbines' heat to power RFID transmissions.
By Claire Swedberg
APEI will provide the high-temperature voltage regulation electronics, as well as a wireless transmitter that acts similarly to an RFID tag to store sensor data (there will be vibration and heat sensors built into the device), along with a unique ID number, and to use that energy to transmit that ID and sensor information to a receiver or reader that could be installed within the aircraft. The reader, for example, could be mounted somewhere in the fuselage, where an aircraft's pilot could monitor each bearing's condition, or receive alerts if something appears to be outside the norm, such as a bearing overheating.

The readers attach to the bearing's raceway and could be affixed with bolts, though Nextreme is still determining the mounting methodology. The devices will be designed to transmit signals in an environment containing a lot of metal. A prototype—already built to send data wirelessly (not necessarily for the aircraft turbines industry)—can transmit to a distance of about 30 feet, using a Texas Instruments transmitter (the Nextreme Thermobility Wireless power generator is designed to work with Texas Instruments' EZ430 platform, which includes the MSP430 ultra-low-power microcontroller and the CC2500 2.4 GHz transceiver). That prototype is part of an evaluation kit that Nextreme designed to demonstrate how thermal energy could be used to power a wireless sensor.

Once the sensor data and a unique ID number are received by a reader on the aircraft, that information could then be stored on a computer onboard, or sent via radio to a server on the ground, where data regarding various in-flight aircraft could be stored and monitored.

Nextreme is now also marketing the thermal energy-harvesting solution in the form of the wireless power generator (WPG-1) evaluation kit for other RFID and wireless sensor applications, because the harvesting is able to save users money that would otherwise be spent on battery replacements or wiring. Because thermal-energy technology is long-lived, the firm estimates, the harvesters would not need to be replaced for decades.

Thermal energy-harvesting technology is typically used to generate power for a variety of electronic devices, such as wireless sensors for monitoring and surveillance, process control, and gas detection. Thermoelectrics can also be used for opto-electronics (electronics that control light), or to cool laser diodes. Because the wireless sensors that Nextreme and APEI are developing do not draw power from batteries, they can be very small, require no battery replacement, and be relatively inexpensive. Von Gunten estimates that the sensor devices to be used for bearing-health detection would cost $1 or less apiece in large volume. He foresees the systems being used in locations such as utility companies, or at other industrial locations in which pipes become hot, as steam or some other gas or liquid passes through them. That heat, he says, can be used to generate electricity to power a sensor that could detect other information, such as temperature, humidity or vibration.

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