Monday, January 22, 2018

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Radar Level Measurement

A part of level measurement using echo.

Radar1 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.

Some radar level instruments use waveguide “probes” to guide the radio waves into the process liquid while others send radio waves out through open space to reflect off the process material. The instruments using waveguides are called guided-wave radar instruments, whereas the radar instruments relying on open space for signal propagation are called non-contact radar. The differences between these two varieties of radar instruments is shown in the following illustration:

Non-contact radar transmitters are always mounted on the top side of a storage vessel. Modern radar transmitters are quite compact, as this photograph shows:


Probes used in guided-wave radar instruments may be single metal rods, parallel pairs of metal rods, or a coaxial metal rod-and-tube structure. Single-rod probes radiate the most energy, whereas coaxial probes do the best job guiding the microwave energy to the liquid interface and back. However, single-rod probes are much more tolerant of process fouling than two-rod or (especially) coaxial probes, where sticky masses of viscous liquid and/or solid matter cling to the probe. Such fouling deposits, if severe enough, will cause radio energy reflections that “look” to the transmitter like the reflection from an actual liquid level or interface.

Non-contact radar instruments rely on antennae to direct microwave energy into the vessel, and to receive the echo (return) energy. These antennae must be kept clean and dry, which may be a problem if the liquid being measured emits condensible vapors. For this reason, non-contact radar instruments are often separated from the vessel interior by means of a dielectric window (made of some substance that is relatively “transparent” to radio waves yet acts as an effective vapor barrier):

Radio waves travel at the velocity of light2, 2.9979×108 meters per second in a perfect vacuum. The velocity of a radio wave through space depends on the dielectric permittivity (symbolized by the Greek letter “epsilon,” ǫ) of that space. A formula relating wave velocity to relative permittivity (the ratio of a substance’s permittivity to that of a perfect vacuum, symbolized as ǫr and sometimes called the dielectric constant of the substance) and the velocity of light in a perfect vacuum (c) is shown here3:

As mentioned previously, the calibration of an echo-based level transmitter depends on knowing the speed of wave propagation through the medium separating the instrument from the process fluid interface. For radar transmitters sensing a single liquid below a gas or vapor, this speed is the speed of light through that gas or vapor space, which we know to be a function of electrical permittivity. The relative permittivity of air at standard pressure and temperature is very nearly unity (1). This means the speed of light in air under atmospheric pressure and ambient temperature will very nearly be the same as it is for a perfect vacuum (2.9979 × 108 meters per second). If, however, the vapor space above the liquid is not ambient air, and is subject to large changes in temperature and/or pressure4, the permittivity of that vapor may substantially change and consequently skew the speed of light, and therefore the calibration of the level instrument.

The permittivity of any gas is related to both pressure and temperature by the following formula:


  εr = Relative permittivity of a gas at a given pressure (P) and temperature (T)

  εref = Relative permittivity of the same gas at standard pressure (Pref ) and temperature (Tref )

  P = Absolute pressure of gas (bars)

  Pref = Absolute pressure of gas under standard conditions (1 bar)

  T = Absolute temperature of gas (Kelvin)

  Tref = Absolute temperature of gas under standard conditions (273 K)

If a radio wave encounters a sudden change in dielectric permittivity, some of that wave’s energy will be reflected in the form of another wave traveling the opposite direction. In other words, the wave will “echo” when it reaches a discontinuity. This is the basis of all radar devices:


This same principle explains reflected signals in copper transmission lines as well. Any discontinuities (sudden changes in characteristic impedance) along the length of a transmission line will reflect a portion of the electrical signal’s power back to the source. In a transmission line, continuities may be formed by pinches, breaks, or short-circuits. In a radar level measurement system, any sudden change in permittivity is a discontinuity that reflects some of the incident radio energy back to the source.

The ratio of reflected power to incident (transmitted) power at any interface of materials is called the power reflection factor (R). This may be expressed as a unitless ratio, or more often as a decibel figure. The relationship between dielectric permittivity and reflection factor is as follows:



  R = Power reflection factor at interface, as a unitless ratio

  εr1 = Relative permittivity (dielectric constant) of the first medium

  εr2 = Relative permittivity (dielectric constant) of the second medium

The fraction of incident power transmitted through the interface is, of course, the mathematical complement of the power reflection factor: 1 R.

For situations where the first medium is air or some other low-permittivity gas, the formula simplifies to the following form (with ǫr being the relative permittivity of the reflecting substance):

In the previous illustration, the two media were air (εr 1) and water (εr 80) – a nearly ideal scenario for strong signal reflection. Given these relative permittivity values, the power reflection factor has a value of 0.638 (63.8%), or -1.95 dB. This means that well over half the incident power reflects off the air/water interface, with the remaining 0.362 (36.2%) of the wave’s power making it through the air-water interface and propagating into water. If the liquid in question is gasoline rather than water (having a rather low relative permittivity value of approximately 2), the power reflection ratio will only be 0.0294 (2.94%) or -15.3 dB, with the vast majority of the wave’s power successfully penetrating the air-gasoline interface.

The longer version of the power reflection factor formula suggests liquid-liquid interfaces should be detectable using radar, and indeed they are. All that is needed is a sufficiently large difference in relative permittivity between the two liquids to create a strong enough echo to reliably detect. Liquid-liquid interface level measurement with radar works best when the upper liquid has a substantially lesser permittivity value than the lower liquid5. A layer of hydrocarbon oil on top of water (or any aqueous solution such as an acid or a caustic) is a good candidate for guided-wave radar level measurement. An example of a liquid-liquid interface that would be very difficult for a radar instrument to detect is water (εr 80) above glycerin (εr 42).

If the radar instrument uses a digital network protocol to communicate information with a host system (such as HART or any number of “fieldbus” standards), it may perform as a multi-variable transmitter, transmitting both the interface level measurement and the total liquid level measurement simultaneously. This capability is rather unique to guided-wave radar transmitters, and is very useful in some processes because it eliminates the need for multiple instruments measuring multiple levels.

One reason why a lesser-ǫ fluid above a greater-ǫ fluid is easier to detect than the inverse is due to the necessity of the signal having to travel through a gas-liquid interface above the liquid-liquid interface. With gases and vapors having such small ǫ values, the signal would have to pass through the gas-liquid interface first in order to reach the liquid-liquid interface. This gas-liquid interface, having the greatest difference in ǫ values of any interface within the vessel, will be most reflective to radio energy in both directions. Thus, only a small portion of the incident wave will ever reach the liquid-liquid interface, and a similarly small portion of the wave reflected off the liquid-liquid interface (which itself is a fraction of the forward wave power that made it through the gas-liquid interface on its way down) will ever make it through the gas-liquid interface on its way back up to the instrument. The situation is much improved if the ǫ values of the two liquid layers are inverted, as shown in this hypothetical comparison (all calculations6 assume no power dissipation along the way, only reflection at the interfaces):

As you can see in the illustration, the difference in power received back at the instrument is nearly two to one, just from the upper liquid having the lesser of two identical ǫ values. Of course, in real life you do not have the luxury of choosing which liquid will go on top of the other (this being determined by fluid density), but you do have the luxury of choosing the appropriate liquid-liquid interface level measurement technology, and as you can see here certain orientations of ǫ values are less detectable with radar than others.

Another factor working against radar as a liquid-liquid interface measurement technology for interfaces where the upper liquid has a greater dielectric constant is that fact that many high-ǫ liquids are aqueous in nature, and water readily dissipates microwave energy. This fact is exploited in microwave ovens, where microwave radiation excites water molecules in the food, dissipating energy in the form of heat. For a radar-based level measurement system consisting of gas/vapor over water over some other (heavier) liquid, the echo signal will be extremely weak because the signal must pass through the “lossy” water layer twice before it returns to the radar instrument. Radio energy losses are important to consider in radar level instrumentation, even when the detected interface is simply gas (or vapor) over liquid. The power reflection factor formula only predicts the ratio of reflected power to incident power at an interface of substances. Just because an air-water interface reflects 63.8% of the incident power does not mean 63.8% of the incident power will actually return to the transceiver antenna! Any dissipative losses between the transceiver and the interface(s) of concern will weaken the radio signal, to the point where it may become difficult to distinguish from noise.

Another important factor in maximizing reflected power is the degree to which the microwaves spread out on their way to the liquid interface(s) and back to the transceiver. Guided-wave radar instruments receive a far greater percentage of their transmitted power than non-contact radar instruments because the metal probe used to guide the microwave signal pulses help prevent the waves from spreading (and therefore weakening) throughout the liquids as they propagate. In other words, the probe functions as a transmission line to direct and focus the microwave energy, ensuring a straight path from the instrument into the liquid, and a straight echo return path from the liquid back to the instrument. This is why guided-wave radar is the only practical radar technology for measuring liquid-liquid interfaces.

A critically important factor in accurate level measurement using radar instruments is that the relative permittivity of the upper substance(s) (all media between the radar instrument and the interface of interest) be accurately known. The reason for this is rooted in the dependence of electromagnetic wave propagation velocity to relative permittivity. Recalling the wave velocity formula shown earlier:



  v = Velocity of electromagnetic wave through a particular substance

  c = Velocity of light in a perfect vacuum (3 × 108 meters per second)

  ǫr = Relative permittivity (dielectric constant) of the substance

In the case of a single-liquid application where nothing but gas or vapor exists above the liquid, the permittivity of that gas or vapor must be precisely known. In the case of a two-liquid interface with gas or vapor above, the relative permittivities of both gas and upper liquids must be accurately known in order to accurately measure the liquid-liquid interface. Changes in dielectric constant value of the medium or media through which the microwaves must travel and echo will cause the microwave radiation to propagate at different velocities. Since all radar measurement is based on time-of-flight through the media separating the radar transceiver from the echo interface, changes in wave velocity through this media will affect the amount of time required for the wave to travel from the transceiver to the echo interface, and reflect back to the transceiver. Therefore, changes in dielectric constant are relevant to the accuracy of any radar level measurement7.

Factors influencing the dielectric constant of gases include pressure and temperature, which means the accuracy of a radar level instrument will vary as gas pressure and/or gas temperature vary! Whether or not this variation is substantial enough to consider for any application depends on the desired measurement accuracy and the degree of permittivity change from one pressure/temperature extreme to another. In no case should a radar instrument be considered for any level measurement application unless the dielectric constant value(s) of the upper media are precisely known. This is analogous to the dependence on liquid density that hydrostatic level instruments face. It is futile to attempt level measurement based on hydrostatic pressure if liquid density is unknown, and it is just as futile to attempt level measurement based on radar if the dielectric constants are unknown8.

As with ultrasonic level instruments, radar level instruments have the ability to measure the level of solid substances in vessels (e.g. powders and granules). The same caveat of repose angle applicable to ultrasonic level measurement, however, is a factor for radar measurement as well. When the particulate solid is not very dense (i.e. much air between particles), the dielectric constant may be rather low, making the material surface more difficult to detect.

Modern radar level instruments provide a wealth of diagnostic information to aid in troubleshooting. One of the most informative is the echo curve, showing each reflected signal received by the instrument along the incident signal’s path of travel. The following image is a screen capture of a computer display, from software used to configure a Rosemount model 3301 guided-wave radar level transmitter with a coaxial probe:

Pulse P1 is the reference or fiducial pulse, resulting from the change in dielectric permittivity between the extended “neck” of the probe (connecting the transmitter to the probe tube) and the coaxial probe itself. This pulse marks the top of the probe, thereby establishing a point of reference for ullage measurement.

This next screen capture shows the same level transmitter measuring a water level that is 8 inches higher than before. Note how pulse P2 is further to the left (indicating an echo received sooner in time), indicating a lesser ullage (greater level) measurement:

Several threshold settings determine how the transmitter categorizes each received pulse. Threshold T1 for this particular radar instrument defines which pulse is the reference (fiducial). Thus, the first echo in time to exceed the value of threshold T1 is interpreted by the instrument to be the reference point. Threshold T2 defines the upper product level, so the first echo in time to exceed this threshold value is interpreted as the vapor/liquid interface point. Threshold T3 for this particular transmitter is used to define the echo generated by a liquid-liquid interface. However, threshold T3 does not appear in this echo plot because the interface measurement option was disabled during this experiment. The last threshold, T4, defines the end-of-probe detection. Set at a negative value (just like the reference threshold T1), threshold T4 looks for the first pulse in time to exceed that value and interprets that pulse as the one resulting from the signal reaching the probe’s end.

All along the echo curve you can see weak echo signals showing up as bumps. These echoes may be caused by discontinuities along the probe (solid deposits, vent holes, centering spacers, etc.), discontinuities in the process liquid (suspended solids, emulsions, etc.), or even discontinuities in the surrounding process vessel (for non-coaxial probes which exhibit varying degrees of sensitivity to surrounding objects). A challenge in configuring a radar level transmitter is to set the threshold values such that “false” echoes are not interpreted as real liquid or interface levels.

A simple way to eliminate false echoes near the reference point is to set a null zone where any echoes are ignored. The upper null zone (UNZ) setting on the Rosemount 3301 radar level transmitter whose screen capture image was shown previously was set to zero, meaning it would be sensitive to any and all echoes near the reference point. If a false echo from a tank nozzle or some other discontinuity near the probe’s entry point into the process vessel created a measurement problem, the upper null zone (UNZ) value could be set just beyond that point so the false echo would not be interpreted as a liquid level echo, regardless of the threshold value for T2. A “null zone” is sometimes referred to as a hold-off distance.

Some radar level instruments allow thresholds to be set as curves themselves rather than straight lines. Thus, thresholds may be set high during certain periods along the horizontal (time/distance) axis to ignore false echoes, and set low during other periods to capture legitimate echo signals.

Regardless of how null zones and thresholds are set for any guided-wave radar level transmitter, the technician must be aware of transition zones near the extremes of the probe length. Measurements of liquid level or interface level within these zones may not be accurate or even linearly responsive. Thus, it is strongly advised to range the instrument in such a way that the lower- and upper-range values (LRV and URV) lie between the transition zones:

The size of these transition zones depends on both the process substances and the probe type9. The instrument manufacturer will provide you with appropriate data for determining transition zone dimensions.



1“Radar” is an acronym: RAdio Detection And Ranging. First used as a method for detecting enemy ships and aircraft at long distances over the ocean in World War II, this technology is used for detecting the presence, distance, and/or speed of objects in a wide variety of applications.

2In actuality, both radio waves and light waves are electromagnetic in nature. The only difference between the two is frequency: while the radio waves used in radar systems are classified as “microwaves” with frequencies in the gigahertz (GHz) region, visible light waves range in the hundred of terahertz (THz)!

3This formula assumes lossless conditions: that none of the wave’s energy is converted to heat while traveling through the dielectric. For many situations, this is true enough to assume.

4Or if the chemical composition of the gas or vapor changes dramatically.

5Rosemount’s “Replacing Displacers with GuidedWave Radar” technical note states that the difference in dielectric constant between the upper and lower liquids must be at least 10.

6R = 0.5285 for the 1/40 interface; R = 0.02944 for the 40/80 interface; and R = 0.6382 for the 1/80 interface.

7It should be noted that the dielectric constant of the lowest medium (the liquid in a simple, non-interface, level measurement application) is irrelevant for calibration purposes. All we are concerned with is the propagation time of the signal to and from the level of interest, nothing below it.

8For vented-tank level measurement applications where air is the only substance above the point of interest, the relative permittivity is so close to a value of 1 that there is little need for further consideration on this point. Where the relative permittivity of fluids becomes a problem for radar is in high-pressure (non-air) gas applications and liquid-liquid interface applications, especially where the upper substance composition is subject to change.

9Probe mounting style will also influence the lower transition zone, in the case of flexible probes anchored to the bottom of the process vessel.


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Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Singh, March 26, 2012
which type of Level Instrument to go for potenially plugging material in a still (Tar Still) (Plugging is avoided by Steam Jacketing) having anchor/Paddle type agitator?
Instrument engineer
written by JOY, August 15, 2016
I found this topic very interesting. The only thing i did not understand from this is the echo curve. What does cnts on Y axis of echo curve depicts. there are two scales shoen on Y axis.

can you please confirm what are these two scales and their units?



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