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Magnetostrictive Level Measurement

A part of level measurement using echo.

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.

In a magnetostrictive level instrument, liquid level is sensed by a lightweight, donut-shaped float containing a magnet. This float is centered around a long metal rod called a waveguide, hung vertically in the process vessel (or hung vertically in a protective cage like the type used for displacement-style level instruments) so that the float may rise and fall with process liquid level. The magnetic field from the float’s magnet has an effect on the molecular structure of the metal in the waveguide, such that when an electric current pulse is sent through the rod, a torsional stress pulse1 is generated at that precise location in the rod where the float magnet’s field interacts with the circular magnetic field from the current through the rod. This torsional (twisting) stress travels at the speed of sound through the rod toward either end. At the bottom end is a dampener device designed to absorb the mechanical wave2. At the top end of the rod (above the process liquid level) is a sensor and electronics package designed to detect the arrival of the mechanical wave. A precision electronic timing circuit measures the time elapsed between the electric current pulse (called the interrogation pulse) and the received mechanical pulse. So long as the speed of sound through the metal waveguide rod remains fixed, the time delay is strictly a function of distance between the float and the sensor, which we already know is called ullage.

The following photograph (left) and illustration (right) show a magnetostrictive level transmitter3 propped up against a wall and the same style of transmitter installed in a liquid-holding vessel, respectively:

The design of this instrument is reminiscent of a guided-wave radar transmitter, where a metal waveguide hangs vertically into the process liquid, guiding a pulse to the sensor head where the sensitive electronic components are located. The major difference here is that the pulse we are dealing with is a sonic vibration in the metal of the waveguide rod, not a radio energy (electromagnetic field) pulse as is the case with radar. Like all sound waves, the torsional pulse in a magnetostriction-based level transmitter is much slower-traveling4 than radio waves.

It is even possible to measure liquid-liquid interfaces with magnetostrictive instruments. If the waveguide is equipped with a float of such density that it floats on the interface between the two liquids (i.e. the float is denser than the light liquid and less dense than the heavy liquid), the sonic pulse generated in the waveguide by that float’s position will represent interface level. Magnetostrictive instruments may even be equipped with two floats: one to sense a liquid-liquid interface, and the other to sense the liquid-vapor interface, so that it may measure both the interface and total levels simultaneously just like a guided-wave radar transmitter:


With such an instrument, each electrical “interrogation” pulse returns two sonic pulses to the sensor head: the first pulse representing the total liquid level (upper, light float) and the second pulse representing the interface level (lower, heavy float).


1An approximate analogy for understanding the nature of this pulse may be performed using a length of rope. Laying a long piece of rope in a straight line on the ground, pick up one end and quickly move it in a tight circle using a “flip” motion of your wrist. You should be able to see the torsional pulse travel down the length of the rope until it either dies out from dissipation or it reaches the rope’s end. Just like the torsional pulse in a magnetostrictive waveguide, this pulse in the rope is mechanical in nature: a movement of the rod’s (rope’s) molecules. As a mechanical wave, it may be properly understood as a form of sound.

2This “dampener” is the mechanical equivalent of a termination resistor in an electrical transmission line: it makes the traveling wave “think” the waveguide is infinitely long, preventing any reflected pulses. For more information on electrical transmission lines and termination resistors, see AC Electricity: Transmission Lines.

3This particular transmitter happens to be one of the “M-Series” models manufactured by MTS.

4One reference gives the speed of sound in a magnetostrictive level instrument as 2850 meters per second. Rounding this up to 3 × 103 m/s, we find that the speed of sound in the magnetostrictive waveguide is at least five orders of magnitude slower than the speed of light in a vacuum (approximately 3 × 108 m/s). This relative slowness of wave propagation is a good thing for our purposes here, as it gives more time for the electronic timing circuit to count, yielding a more precise measurement of distance traveled by the wave. This fact grants superior resolution of measurement to magnetostrictive level sensors over radar-based and laser-based level sensors. Open-air ultrasonic level instruments deal with propagation speeds even slower than this (principally because the density of gases and vapors is far less than that of a solid metal rod) which at first might seem to give these level sensors the upper hand in precision. However, open-air level sensors experience far greater propagation velocity variations caused by changes in pressure and temperature than magnetostrictive sensors. Unlike the speed of sound in gases or liquids, the speed of sound in a solid metal rod is quite stable over a large range of temperatures, and of course is virtually unaffected by the pressure of the surrounding process fluid.


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