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$10m sensor project aims to cut US energy bills by $1bn

01 January, 2004

US researchers have embarked on a $10m project to develop energy-saving sensor and wireless networking technologies to help US industry to cut its annual energy costs by up to $1bn. The project, led by Honeywell and co-funded by the US Department of Energy, is part of a $115m DoE programme aimed at improving the energy efficiency of strategic industries, such as petrochemicals, power generation and manufacturing.

The project, involving about 20 partner organisations, is intended to help manufacturers to track their use of energy accurately in real time and to control their processes more precisely. At present, it is argued, vast amounts of energy are being wasted because manufacturers lack the precise information needed to optimise the efficiency of their processes.

"This project is a bold step towards capturing the potential in emerging wireless and sensing technologies to serve the needs of manufacturers across several industries," says Dan Sheflin, chief technology officer for Honeywell`s automation and control solutions business.

He believes that the project will result in "practical, low-cost systems that will produce a significant change in the way manufacturers operate and make US industry more efficient and competitive worldwide.

"The ultimate objective is to help industry to optimise the use of energy, space and other resources," he adds. "Wireless and sensing technologies - including advances in installing and managing sensors and other control devices - can help manufacturers save time and money, utilise timely, more robust data, and be more aware of their processes."

The project aims to create a new wireless system architecture that unites sensor, radio and security technologies. It will use a mesh networking technology developed by the Ember Corporation, that creates robust, self-organising, self-healing, and easy-to-deploy networks. The technology is designed to comply with the emerging ZigBee wireless communications system.

"Energy efficiency measures were plateaued for years because, although there was the will and the technology to conserve energy, it was impossible at any given time to know which parts of an operation were working inefficiently," explains Ember chief executive, Jeff Grammer. "The advances we`ve made in wireless mesh technology over the last few years change all that - now, companies can put energy-sensing devices everywhere in their operation, and tie them together with networks that get energy consumption information into the hands of people who can put it to good use."

The US government has identified eight key sectors as "industries of the future" which together supply 90% of the materials vital to the US economy. These industries - aluminium, chemicals, forest products, glass, metal casting, mining, petroleum and steel - use significant amounts of energy and offer huge opportunities for cutting energy consumption.

The three-year DoE program will combine $61m of funding from the US Government with $54m invested by industrial partners, to fund 32 projects aimed at boosting the efficiency of these key industries. More than 150 companies, universities, research organisations and laboratories will be involved. Many of the projects will focus on the needs of particular industries, while eight will look at more widely applicable technologies.

In addition to the Honeywell-led project, there will be two others involving advanced sensor technologies. In one of these, GE Global Research and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are leading a $5.98m project to develop a low-cost wireless sensor system for measuring a variety of parameters in and around motors. The aim is to reduce dramatically the cost of monitoring motor systems.

In a third project, lead by the Eaton Corporation, a consortium will develop a self-configuring wireless sensor network designed to integrate with advanced energy management software, suitable for a wide range of manufacturing industries. The $6m project will include field trials by BP and International Paper.




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