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KCF Technologies to Launch Energy-Harvesting Wireless Sensors

The RFID-based devices will allow users to track their machinery's condition based on vibration and temperature readings, with power supplied by a battery or generated by heat, vibration or sunlight.
By Claire Swedberg
Dec 14, 2011KCF Technologies, a spin-off company created in 2000 by two Pennsylvania State University faculty members and a recently graduated PhD student, is commercializing energy-harvesting wireless sensors, after completing a decade of research and development. The complete system, known as Smart Diagnostics, consists of active RFID tags with built-in vibration and heat sensors, as well as RFID receivers and software to manage data culled from sensor readings. The solution is designed for rugged industrial and military applications, to help users monitor the conditions of machines at sites where it would be inconvenient or impossible to manually perform regular sensor readings.

At present, a paper factory, three power-generation companies and a university are testing a beta version of the technology. The university has attached the sensors to large heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) units, while the other firms are monitoring the health of manufacturing or utility equipment. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is employing several kits that include the KCF sensors, along with receivers and software for tracking the condition of helicopter blades. In addition, the company reports, the DOD is testing the technology on the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarines, for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) project, with tags placed on certain parts of each submarine. During all of the deployments, each user is monitoring its machinery's condition based on the levels of vibration and heat—and any fluctuation of those levels—and that information is then transmitted to that firm's back-end system via active RFID.

A KCF RFID sensor tag (left) wired to a thermal energy harvester

KCF Technologies offers a variety of technology solutions related to sensor data. One such product is the Smart Diagnostics system, developed with financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy, in support of the agency's efforts to improve machine-health monitoring and thus increase energy efficiency, and with the DOD. According to David Shannon, KCF's business development and marketing VP, the company was founded, in part, to enable "the Internet of Things for very hard problems." The firm has been focusing on a system that would enable companies, such as manufacturers or utility companies, to track the condition of their equipment—located within remote areas, or places where human access may be limited—in real time, without requiring an individual to walk through his or her facility, manually performing sensor readings.

The health and efficiency of a piece of equipment—such as a compressor, chiller, generator or fan—can be gauged by its amount of temperature and vibration, Shannon explains. When a mechanical item begins to fail, he says, its vibration and temperature levels may rise very gradually—something that is difficult to detect unless sensor readings are taken on a regular basis. While companies that manufacture the equipment sometimes offer sensor technology, the sensors typically must be wired, which can be very expensive. KCF sought an easier, less costly solution for businesses that may not have the necessary budget to purchase and install the wired solution.

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