September 2008

EXPO 2008 Preview

Future holds promise at EXPO 2008

Wireless sensors, low power nuclear, how technology shapes society on EXPO agenda


  • Wireless keynoter looks toward future.
  • Nuclear guru sees low energy use ahead.
  • Speaker stresses negative feedback as positive force.
By Ellen Fussell Policastro

Wireless sensors bring clairvoyance

Everybody likes to have sensors. The problem is they are expensive. The expense is not around the cost of the sensors themselves, which could run around $1,000, but rather the cost of wiring them up, which could run into about $10,000. Wireless sensor networks will allow people to get all the sensor data they wish they had but cannot afford the cost of installing wire. This is the gist of keynoter Kris Pister, founder and chief technical officer at Dust Networks in Hayward, Calif., who will speak in Houston at ISA EXPO on 14 October.

People in refineries have tons of information that is inaccessible. They could have five sensors not wired up for every one sensor they can afford to wire up. It is not the emission or safety data, but data they need for efficiency. The potential to go out and grab that data and prove the operation is an exciting opportunity.

Besides cost, there are other advantages to wireless sensors, Pister said. "In some places you can't run a wire, places that are moving. That's the second generation set of applications for this. First, we already know we need pressure, temperature, flow. We have sensors there but can only afford to wire a fraction," he said. "The place we're seeing a lot is industrial process monitoring-oil and gas refineries, chemical processing, paper mills, water and wastewater treatments, and breweries. Then we have pharmaceutical manufacturing. They have lots of sensors installed that are wired up, but there are a lot more they wish they could install and wire up," he said.

Users want wireless networks

Pister said end users are excited about the possibility of wireless sensor networks. "They see possibility for more functionality at lower cost. We had a great example where the CTO at one refinery got up and said they took sensors out of the box, put them in, and within the first hour they solved a thermal problem that had been plaguing the plant for a year."

Several years ago wireless was very scary to people, Pister said, so his team spent the last few years educating them. "Our partners have been out there with the message that this time it really works. There have been a lot of burned fingers with wireless in the past. But now there's a new way of doing it so we can guarantee the reliability people need. And it's much cheaper."

Wireless sensors' future for the automation community brings excitement about looking forward to a time "when nothing happens in your facility without you knowing about it and sometimes knowing about it before it's going to happen," Pister said. "You see the trends and data before it happens and can do something about it."

Future nukes hope for low energy use

The Rimbach lecturer is David J. Nagel, Ph.D., research professor in applications of micro- and nano-technologies in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. On 15 October at ISA EXPO, Nagel will talk about how instrumentation for low energy nuclear reactions can change the way we look at nuclear production of the future.

What is new in the nuclear field is "you don't have to go to a billion-dollar machine in high energies to get nuclear reactions," Nagel said. You can do it with something smaller. Where users once had vacuum tubes with electronics, they replaced them with transistors. "In a way, that's what we're talking about here. You don't need a large reactor or machine. You can do it on a table top," he said.

During his talk, Nagel will explain what low energy nuclear is, then were it is, and what needs to be done to turn it into commercial application and what might come out of it.

"The one-word answer to how this will be applied is energy, specifically nuclear energy," he said. And that means nuclear energy without a big power plant.

"Making hot water is critical. If you have energy in your home that makes that, you have something worthwhile," Nagel said. "Thermal electric materials turn heat into electricity. So as this field unfolds, so will thermal electrics, so you can have safe long-term units in your home and no long-term waste."

In order to make hot water and electricity, you need thermal electrics. Implicit in this is you do not need big central power stations, he said, but you will still need to run large things like subway systems. "But it does decrease dependence on the grid, which is of course the problem. The U.S. electrical grid is known for brownouts and blackouts. And it'll get worse before it gets better."

Are we ready?

Is the automation industry ready? "It's not at the engineering stage yet," he said. But when it gets there, all kinds of instrumentation will be required for commercial devices."

"We're talking energy sources. They break up into broad categories. Mobile power is one of them, batteries for cell phones, lap tops on the small end. Then you go up to a level where you can power a house or automobile. Then you can increase the power level; you can run office buildings and factories."

Some of the advantages are long life. The negatives are not clear yet, Nagel said, but what has to happen if this is going to be important is that it works for a long time reliably. That's the challenge.

Negative feedback is positive

Only negative feedback makes sense. Positive feedback is a destructive force, said Dr. John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston and keynoter on 16 October.

Feedback has to operate in opposition to what is going on. "If you're training a child to stay out of the street, you wouldn't give him candy. Psychologists talk about positive feedback, but negative feedback humanely applied is a positive reinforcement," Lienhard said.

Even as a boat starts going to one side, the helmsman turns the rudder in the opposite direction, which is negative feedback.

As a history professor, Lienhard always hears the complaint, "Why do I need this?" Mechanical engineers require a quarter of engineering devoted to general studies. Why do they need it? "It opens up freedom of election. It opens up ways of seeing the world that aren't running in a straight line right now toward their goals," Lienhard said. "It opens up more opportunities to go more directions. It means taking courses in philosophy, literacy, and gives you a larger view of the world. They'll see engineering origins as having a place in shaping society."

Talking tech

Once again, the EXPO floor will host six technical exchanges for attendees to learn more about their specific fields of interest. Take a look at just a few panel discussions and technical presentations that lie ahead.
Enterprise integration

Commissioning is always a stressful time for everyone involved, especially as the instrumentation and control teams are the last ones to get started and are therefore normally in the critical path to start-up and feed-in. However with changes to modern control systems, the instrumentation team no longer needs to be the last ones out. Yes, there will still be stress, but by taking advantage of today's smart instruments and minor changes to traditional procedures the seemingly impossible can happen. Ian Verhappen of MTL will host a session on 15 October at 2 p.m. to share past "horror stories," provide suggestions on how to take advantage of today's technology, and provide a forum for all participants to share their experiences in project commissioning.

Environmental and quality

Southern Company is adding new pollution control equipment to several of their existing power plants.  These modifications require additional or larger fans to overcome the system resistance inherent in this new equipment. On 14 October at 3:45 p.m., Southern Company's Dale Evely will talk about control system design using dynamic simulation.

"A number of these retrofits also involve combining the draft systems for multiple units to allow one scrubber to serve more than one generating unit," Evely said.  "These increases in draft capacity, along with the interconnection of multiple units, raise the possibility of excessive pressure excursions in the furnace and ductwork during certain operating conditions. "

Controls for the new equipment are required to protect individual components, keep system pressures within allowable limits, and to minimize the interaction between interconnected draft systems. 

Evely will describe how Southern Company used validated dynamic simulation models their design the control logic for these plant modifications.  The plant models were run through various normal and abnormal operating scenarios to verify the behavior of the control systems in preventing fan trips, fan stalls, or unit runbacks, while maintaining safe system pressures.

Process automation

People need to be able to understand the PID algorithm in order to tune it, but looking at the mathematical descriptions and Laplace transforms does not usually help those who need help.  Russ Rhinehart, Bartlett Chair and School Head at the School of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University, will describe the terms in the PID algorithm a bit differently from the standard approach.

In his tutorial on 14 October at 3:45 p.m., Rhinehart will explain the P, I, and D functions and help the audience understand associated terminology such as rate-before-reset, non-interacting, parallel, reset feedback, etc.


The Dow Chemical Company has changed the design methodology for implementing high integrity protection systems (HIPS), which is essentially a safety instrumented system installed when a relief can not perform the required task. Ron Johnson's presentation on 15 October at 10 a.m. will discuss the use of layers of protection analysis to define the required HIPS integrity.

Steve Apple of TiPS Inc. along with other panel members will reveal on 14 October at 3:45 p.m. how alarm management includes a risk in the balance. Alarm management has become a hot topic, especially operator information overload. (See related story on page 44.)

"The alarm system was identified as a prime source of much of that information overload," Apple said. Process alarms are associated with annunciation horns, and result in requirements for attention and handling. "Therefore any use of the alarm system for items that are not highly important to the ongoing safety or effectiveness of the process tends to decay the effectiveness of the system. It essentially becomes part of the background noise," he said.

A quick scan of recent literature will reveal discussion associated with alarm rationalization, and its benefits. "Many companies have sunk millions of dollars into alarm management efforts with very little result," Apple said. "As one who is observing and considering how to address your own alarm management issues, you might ask, 'What is the best investment of time and resources to address this issue with the respect that it is due-no more, and no less?' "

The answer is to include risk in the balance. Apple and his team will present a simplified approach to alarm management that helps you quantify your risk up front, for the minimum investment. "You can then utilize the information from that investment to wisely lay out a plan that will help you to approach the problem in a well-designed, well-engineered fashion," he said.


In a group discussion on integrating security into existing systems on 14 October at 2:00 p.m., Justin Lowe and Kim Sheilp of A Consulting Group will present digital security issues in oil and gas exploration and production drilling systems. "These systems are very similar to traditional control systems but seem to be treated very differently, and the relating security issues are often ignored," Lowe said. He will introduce these systems, provide an overview of the risks and impacts and highlight how best practice industrial security can and should be used in these areas.

The ISA99 committee is focusing most of its resources on the development of additional standards in the series that will define the technical requirements for industrial automation and control systems security. Eric Cosman of Dow Chemical Company will be on hand 14 October at 9:30 a.m. to explain how this effort is expected to extend into 2009 with individual documents being released for committee vote as they become available. In addition to developing these standards, the committee is working with the Security Compliance Institute as well as other industry groups such as the Process Control Systems Forum.

Wireless and networking

Hesh Kagan of ExxonMobil is one of six panelists who will discuss wireless standards on 15 October at 10 a.m. Kagan will describe what is driving the market, understanding technology drivers, and exploring constraints and enablers of industrial wireless solutions. "We will then pass through a discussion of the positioning of wireless technology at all levels of the enterprise through the range of highly valuable solutions, along with the architectures commonly being deployed today," he said. Kagan will also review real-world implementations, taking a look at their success and some bumps in the road.

SCADA missions

While the mission of a SCADA system has essentially remained consistent, the technology choices organizations had at their disposal has really changed.  From a wireless perspective, the vast majority of wireless SCADA systems revolved around a point-to-point radio link with the information using some flavor of proprietary messaging protocol.

"Thank goodness that there are more options, particularly standards-based ones," said Peter Fuhr of Aprrion, and wireless speaker on 14 October at 2 p.m. Fuhr will examine various network topologies that allow multiuse wireless networks for the transport of not just proprietary protocols, but IP-based too. "The net result is an overall architecture that provides the user with a less expensive and, yes, more secure system than those old school designs," Fuhr said.

This session will examine the network topologies, the technical underpinnings for the devices and network elements, and put it into context of a system architecture that is secure.

Discussion topics will include IP- and non-IP-based systems, deployment topologies, current trends in research publications, security breach-point identification, the SCADA implications of wireless systems that are being designed for DCS integration, and recommended architectures.