January/February 2010

Magnetic flowmeter technology

Magnetic flowmeters utilize Faraday's Law of Electromagnetic Induction to determine the velocity of a liquid flowing in a pipe. Faraday's Law forms the basis for electrical generation systems where wires travel through a magnetic field and produce a voltage.

In a typical physics class experiment to illustrate the phenomenon, a wire (conductor) connected across a galvanometer can be moved through the magnetic field of a horseshoe magnet and cause the galvanometer pointer to move. Moving the wire in the opposite direction will cause the pointer to move in the opposite direction due to the changing voltage polarity. Moving the wire faster will cause more voltage to be generated and the movement to move higher.

In magnetic flowmeters, a magnetic field is generated and channeled into the liquid flowing through the pipe. To accomplish this, the electromagnetic coils can be located outside of the pipe (flow tube), however the flow tube must be non-magnetic to allow penetration of the magnetic field into the liquid. Locating the coils internal to the flowmeter (closer to the liquid) can reduce the electrical power necessary to deliver the magnetic field, as well as reduce the size of the flowmeter and fabrication costs.

Following Faraday's Law, flow of a conductive liquid through the magnetic field will cause a voltage signal to be generated. This signal is sensed with electrodes located on the flow tube walls. When the coils are located externally, a non-conductive liner is installed inside the flow tube to electrically isolate the electrodes and prevent the signal from being shorted. For similar reasons, non-conductive materials are used to isolate the electrodes for internal coil designs.

The fluid itself is the conductor that will move (flow) through the magnetic field and generate a voltage signal at the electrodes. When the fluid moves faster, more voltage is generated. Faraday's Law states the voltage generated is proportional to the movement of the flowing liquid. The transmitter processes the voltage signal to determine liquid flow.

Electromagnetic excitation

The voltage signal will take the same general form as its electromagnetic excitation. When a magnetic flowmeter is excited by a sinusoidal magnetic field (AC waveform), the signal generated at the electrodes is also sinusoidal. In earlier designs, these signals were subject to a number of influences that affected measurement quality, including stray voltages in the process liquid, capacitive coupling between the signal and power circuits, capacitive coupling between interconnecting wiring, electrochemical voltage potential between the electrode and the process fluid, and inductive coupling of the magnets within the flowmeter. These flowmeters required a zero adjustment to compensate for these influences and the effect of electrode coating.

Turning the electromagnetic field on and off (DC waveform) causes the signal to resemble a square wave. When the electromagnetic field is on, the signal due to flow plus noise is measured. When the electromagnetic field is off, the signal due to only noise is measured. Subtracting these measurements cancels the effects of noise and eliminates the zero adjustment, reducing the abovementioned drift problems and improving performance.

Waveforms other than those described above are also in use.

Measured quantity

The magnetic flowmeter signal is proportional to the fluid velocity. Therefore, these flowmeters measure velocity, from which the volumetric flow rate is inferred utilizing the first equation, assuming the cross-sectional area of the conduit is known. Magnetic flowmeter performance is therefore predicated on how well the average fluid velocity is measured and how well the cross-sectional area is known. Uncertainty in the cross-sectional area can degrade the inferred volumetric flow rate measurement.

Typical applications

The construction of the magnetic flowmeter is such that the only wetted parts are the liner and electrodes, both of which can be made from materials that can withstand corrosion. In addition, the straight-through (obstructionless) nature of the design reduces the loss of hydraulic energy across the flowmeter (pressure drop) and the potential for abrasion from the flowing liquid. Therefore, magnetic flowmeters can measure many corrosive liquids and abrasive slurries.

Magnetic flowmeter liners and electrodes can be constructed of materials that do not contaminate the liquid. Therefore, these flowmeters can be applied when liquid contamination is an issue, such as in sanitary applications.

Straight run requirements are relatively short, so magnetic flowmeter technology can be applied where limited straight run is available. In addition, magnetic flowmeter technology has no Reynolds number constraints, so it can be applied where the liquid exhibits high or varying viscosity.

Magnetic flowmeters that sense velocity and level can measure the flow of liquids in partially filled pipes, such as interceptor sewers and storm water culverts. Magnetic flowmeters with fast response times can measure liquids that flow for relatively short periods of time, such as in batch and fill operations.

Magnetic flowmeters measure liquid velocity, from which the volumetric flow rate is inferred. The measurement is linear with liquid velocity and exhibits a relatively large turndown.

Source: The Consumer Guide to Magnetic Flowmeters, 2nd Edition by David W. Spitzer and Walt Boyes, Copperhill and Pointer, Inc., 2004.

Additional flowmeter information