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Sophisticated fiber optic sensors find niche apps

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Caren B. Les, [email protected]

Fiber optic sensors are emerging as an alternative to conventional electronic sensors, mostly in applications where highly developed devices are required.

Demand for fiber optic sensors is expected to grow within the next five years, largely because of initiatives taken by market participants, said Amritha Sridharan, a research analyst with Frost & Sullivan. Her report, Fiber Optic Sensors, is part of the company’s Technical Insights program.

“Offering efficiency and versatility, fiber optic sensors are finding greater application in areas such as the oil, gas, aerospace, defense and civil structure sectors,” she said. “Innovations that address the demands of these application areas are helping to foster the growth of the industry. The devices are increasingly being used to detect critical problems at an early stage, thus contributing to worker safety and reducing repair costs.

A rise in the demand for fiber optic sensors is predicted. Skilled operators at RJC Enterprises LLC in Bothell, Wash., are shown producing the devices. The small sensors (300 x 300 μm) and small optical fibers (170-μm optical density) require microscopic assembly. Courtesy of RJC Enterprises.

“Partnerships among participants from various industries, along with university research and funding activities, will play an important role in implementing the sensors on a broader scale.”

Tendeka, a global organization of gas and oil technology experts, provides assistance to companies in the development and implementation of monitoring technologies such as distributed temperature and strain sensing, and fiber optic multipoint pressure gauges. OTM Consulting Ltd., based in Guildford, UK, offers technology management help to oil, gas and alternative energy companies and their suppliers to identify, commercialize and deploy new technology. OTM manages the Seafom Subsea Fiber Optic Monitoring Group.

The fiber-based devices that are typically used to sense temperature and mechanical strain can be used in high-voltage or highly explosive environments because they are made up of electrically insulating materials.

They are immune to electromagnetic interference and have a wide operating temperature range. Their applications include monitoring the conditions of airplane structures, bridges, dams, oil wells and pipelines, and aging buildings.

Fiber optic sensors are expensive in comparison with conventional electronic sensors, but their cost is likely to decrease as greater awareness of their advantages leads to a rise in demand. Extensive testing results and a history of successful deployment cases are expected to enhance the adoption rate of fiber optic sensors in conservative markets, according to a November 2010 press release from Frost & Sullivan.

Consolidation of companies is another emerging trend, she said. Startup companies and their innovations will gain greater acceptance from the larger fiber optic manufacturers. “Some of the big companies from various application sectors for fiber optic sensors would buy the startup companies under their umbrella and thus achieve direct utilization of the techniques in their respective application sectors.”

There is a trend toward standardization and miniaturization of components within the industry that is expected to continue over the next three to five years as well, she added. Standardization activity is handled by organizations such as the Society of Automotive Engineers, the German Association for Experimental Stress Analysis, the Association of German Engineers, and the European Cooperation in Science and Technology, with its Action 299 guidelines.

“I can’t address the entire fiber optic sensors market, but, for us, the major issue is market awareness,” said David Weston, director of business development at TerraEchos Inc. in Missoula, Mont. “As with many new and rapidly evolving technologies, there are segments of the market that could benefit from broader knowledge of the technology and its advantages. The challenge is then market warming and customer acceptance.”

TerraEchos has developed and now supplies the Adelos S4 digital acoustic fiber optic system, which is designed to provide covert, real-time surveillance over large areas. With its ability to track simultaneous intrusions in land, air and water environments, the interoperable sensor-to-sensor communication and analysis system has applications in protecting critical infrastructures, monitoring remote border areas and securing vulnerable perimeters. Customers for the technology include the US government.

Weston predicts that fiber optic sensor technologies and applications in growth sectors of the economy will advance. “In our market sector, the twin threats of terrorism and asymmetric warfare are driving investments in new technologies. The challenges are huge, but the consequences of failure are measured in lives lost, assets destroyed and damage to the economy.”

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2011
In optics, the mechanical tension, compression or shear in optical glass due to internal stress caused by improper cooling or annealing during manufacture of the glass or the subsequent working of molded parts.
Adelos S5Amritha SridharanAssociation of German EngineersbridgesbuildingsBusinessCaliforniaCaren B. LescostDavid Westondefensedigital acoustic fiber optic systemElectronic SensorsEuropean Cooperation in Science and Technologyfiber opticsFrost & SullivangasGerman Association for Experimental Stress Analysisimaginglight speedmarketsminiaturizationMissoulamonitoringMontanaMountain Viewmultipoint pressure gaugesoilOTM Consultingphotonic crystal fiberSeafomsecuritySensors & DetectorsSociety of Automotive EngineersstandardizationstrainSubsea Fiber Optic Monitoring GroupsurveillancetemperatureTendekaTerraEchosterrorismUK

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