Monday, January 22, 2018

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Ultrasonic Level Measurement

A part of level measurement using echo.

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).


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).


Ullage is the “natural” mode of measurement for this sort of level instrument, because the sound wave’s time-of-flight is a direct function of how much empty space exists between the liquid surface and the top of the vessel. Total tank height will always be the sum of fillage and ullage, though. If the ultrasonic level transmitter is programmed with the vessel’s total height, it may calculate fillage via simple subtraction:

Fillage = Total height Ullage

The instrument itself consists of an electronics module containing all the power, computation, and signal processing circuits; plus an ultrasonic transducer3 to send and receive the sound waves. This transducer is typically piezoelectric in nature, being the equivalent of a very high-frequency audio speaker. The following photographs show a typical electronics module (left) and sonic transducer (right):


The ISA-standard designations for each component would be “LT” (level transmitter) for the electronics module and “LE” (level element) for the transducer, respectively. Even though we call the device responsible for transmitting and receiving the sound waves a transducer (in the scientific sense of the word), its function as a process instrument is to be the primary sensing element for the level measurement system, and therefore it is more properly designated a “level element” (LE).

If the ultrasonic transducer is rugged enough, and the process vessel sufficiently free of sludge and other sound-damping materials accumulating at the vessel bottom, the transducer may be mounted at the bottom of the vessel, bouncing sound waves off the liquid surface through the liquid itself rather than through the vapor space:

This arrangement makes fillage the natural measurement, and ullage a derived measurement (calculated by subtraction from total vessel height).

Ullage = Total height Fillage

Whether the ultrasonic transducer is mounted above or below the liquid level, the principle of detection is any significant difference in material density. If the detection interface is between a gas and a liquid, the abrupt change in density is enough to create a strong reflected signal. However, it is possible for foam and floating solids to also cause echos when the transducer is above-mounted, which may or may not be desirable depending on the application4.

As mentioned previously, the calibration of an ultrasonic level transmitter depends on the speed of sound through the medium between the transducer and the interface. For top-mounted transducers, this is the speed of sound through the air (or vapor) over the liquid, since this is the medium through which the incident and reflected wave travel time is measured. For bottom-mounted transducers, this is the speed of sound through the liquid. In either case, to ensure good accuracy, one must make sure the speed of sound through the “timed” travel path remains reasonably constant (or else compensate for changes in the speed of sound through that medium by use of temperature or pressure measurements and a compensating algorithm).

Ultrasonic level instruments enjoy the advantage of being able to measure the height of solid materials such as powders and grains stored in vessels, not just liquids. Certain challenges unique to these level measurement applications include low material density (not causing strong reflections) and uneven profiles (causing reflections to be scattered laterally instead of straight back to the ultrasonic instrument. A classic problem encountered when measuring the level of a powdered or granular material in a vessel is the angle of repose formed by the material as a result of being fed into the vessel at one point:


This angled surface is difficult for an ultrasonic device to detect because it tends to scatter the sound waves laterally instead of reflecting them strongly back toward the instrument. However, even if the scattering problem is not significant, there still remains the problem of interpretation: what is the instrument actually measuring? The detected level near the vessel wall will certainly register less than at the center, but the level detected mid-way between the vessel wall and vessel center may not be an accurate average of those two heights. Moreover, this angle may decrease over time if mechanical vibrations cause the material to “flow” and tumble from center to edge.

In fact, the angle will probably reverse itself if the vessel empties from a center-located chute:

For this reason, solids storage measurement applications demanding high accuracy generally use other techniques, such as weight-based measurement (see Continuous Level Measurement : Weight).


3In the industrial instrumentation world, the word “transducer” usually has a very specific meaning: a device used to process or convert standardized instrumentation signals, such as 4-20 mA converted into 3-15 PSI, etc. In the general scientific world, however, the word “transducer” describes any device converting one form of energy into another. It is this latter definition of the word that I am using when I describe an ultrasonic “transducer” – a device used to convert electrical energy into ultrasonic sound waves, and visa-versa.

4If the goal is to only detect the liquid, then reflections from foam or solids would be bad. However, if the goal of measuring level is to prevent a vessel from overflowing, it is good to measure anything floating on the liquid surface!


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