Monday, January 22, 2018

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Echo As Level Measurement

A completely different way of measuring liquid level in vessels is to bounce a traveling wave off the surface of the liquid – typically from a location at the top of the vessel – using the time-of-flight for the waves as an indicator of distance1, and therefore an indicator of liquid height inside the vessel. Echo-based level instruments enjoy the distinct advantage of immunity to changes in liquid density, a factor crucial to the accurate calibration of hydrostatic and displacement level instruments. In this regard, they are quite comparable with float-based level measurement systems.

From a historical perspective, hydrostatic and displacement level instruments have a richer pedigree. These instruments are simpler in nature than echo-based instruments, and were practical long before the advent of modern electronic technology. Echo-based instruments require precision timing and wave-shaping circuitry, plus sensitive (and rugged!) transceiver elements, demanding a much higher level of technology. However, modern electronic design and instrument manufacturing practices are making echo-based level instruments more and more practical for industrial applications. At the time of this writing (2008), it is common practice in some industries to replace old displacer level instruments with guided-wave radar instruments, even in demanding applications operating at high pressures2.

Liquid-liquid interfaces may also be measured with some types of echo-based level instruments, most commonly guided-wave radar.

The single most important factor to the accuracy of an echo-based level instrument is the speed at which the wave travels en route to the liquid surface and back. This wave propagation speed is as fundamental to the accuracy of an echo instrument as liquid density is to the accuracy of a hydrostatic or displacer instrument. So long as this velocity is known and stable, good level measurement accuracy is possible. Although it is true that the calibration of an echo-based level instrument does not depend on process fluid density for the reason it does in hydrostatic- or displacement-based level instruments, this does not necessarily mean the calibration of an echo-based level instrument remains fixed as process fluid density changes. The propagation velocity of the wave used in an echo-based level instrument may indeed be subject to change as the process fluids change temperature or composition. For ultrasonic (sound) echo instruments, the speed of sound is a strong function of medium density. Thus, an ultrasonic level transmitter measuring time-of-flight through a vapor above the liquid may drift out of calibration if the density (i.e. speed of sound) in that vapor changes substantially, which may happen if the vapor’s temperature or pressure happens to change. If the sound wave time-of-flight is measured while the waves pass through liquid, the calibration may drift if the speed of sound in that liquid changes substantially, which may happen if the liquid’s temperature changes. For radar (radio wave) echo instruments, the speed of radio wave propagation varies according to the dielectric permittivity of the medium. Permittivity is also affected by changes in density for the fluid medium, and so even radar level instruments may suffer calibration drift with process fluid density changes.

Echo-based level instruments may be “fooled” by layers of foam resting on top of the liquid, and the liquid-to-liquid interface detection models may have difficulty detecting non-distinct interfaces (such as emulsions). Irregular structures residing within the vapor space of a vessel (such as access portals, mixer paddles and shafts, ladders, etc.) may wreak havoc with echo-based level instruments by casting false echoes back to the instrument, although this problem may be mitigated by installing guide tubes for the waves to travel in, or using wave probes as in the cases of guided-wave radar instruments. Liquid streams pouring in to the vessel through the vapor space may similarly cause problems for an echo instrument. Additionally, all echo-based instruments have dead zones where liquid level is too close to the transceiver to be accurately measured or even detected (the echo time-of-flight being too short for the receiving electronics to distinguish from the incident pulse).


Ultrasonic Level Measurement - Ultrasonic level instruments measure the distance from the transmitter (located at some high point) to the surface of a process material located further below. The time-of-flight for a sound pulse indicates this distance, and is interpreted by the transmitter electronics as process level. These transmitters may output a signal corresponding either to the fullness of the vessel (fillage) or the amount of empty space remaining at the top of a vessel (ullage). Click here to read more...

Radar Level Measurement - Radar level instruments measure the distance from the transmitter (located at some high point) to the surface of a process material located further below in much the same way as ultrasonic transmitters – by measuring the time-of-flight of a traveling wave. The fundamental difference between a radar instrument and an ultrasonic instrument is the type of wave used: radio waves instead of sound waves. Radio waves are electromagnetic in nature (comprised of alternating electric and magnetic fields), and very high frequency (in the microwave frequency range – GHz). Sound waves are mechanical vibrations (transmitted from molecule to molecule in a fluid or solid substance) and of much lower frequency (tens or hundreds of kilohertz – still too high for a human being to detect as a tone) than radio waves.Click here to read more...

Laser Level Measurement - The least-common form of echo-based level measurement is laser, which uses pulses of laser light reflected off the surface of a liquid to detect the liquid level. Perhaps the most limiting factor with laser measurement is the necessity of having a sufficiently reflective surface for the laser light to “echo” off of. Many liquids are not reflective enough for this to be a practical measurement technique, and the presence of dust or thick vapors in the space between the laser and the liquid will disperse the light, weakening the light signal and making the level more difficult to detect. Click here to read more...

Magnetostrictive Level Measurement - A variation on the theme of echo-based level instruments, where the level of some process material in a vessel is measured by timing the travel of a wave between the instrument and the material interface, is one applied to float-type instruments: magnetostriction. Click here to read more...


1The general term for this form of measurement is time domain reflectometry.

2My own experience with this trend is within the oil refining industry, where legacy displacer instruments (typically Fisher brand “Level-Trol” units) are being replaced with new guided-wave radar transmitters, both for single-liquid and liquid-liquid interface applications.


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