Infrared Instrumentation and Fuel Cells-Technologies in Motion

E-mail Ray Peacock

The processes of a number of heavy industries have changed dramatically over the years as infrared and energy-source technologies have developed and been enhanced. Add to this mix the acquisitions and consolidations among solution providers, and it's a whole new ball game.

Something Better on the Horizon
The recent cold snap reminded me of February 2, 1996, when Tower, MN, reported a morning low of –60°F. That day, I was only a few miles away in Aurora, MN, at my steel company's iron ore manufacturing plant, to solve problems occurring during the production of taconite pellets.

There was a lot to learn about making and breaking taconite. And the task was complicated by the fact that the manufacture of the pellets involved temperatures ≥ 2000°F. If one of the modern low-cost infrared imagers had been available, we might have saved a lot of time. Compounding matters, we didn't have the battery technology that might have simplified the process.

It has taken a while for the cost of compact infrared devices to drop below $10,000, but today they are readily available from outfits such as FLIR and Fluke (Raytek). And the development of Ni-MH and Li-Ion batteries has greatly spurred improvements in battery technology. Now it looks like fuel cells and perhaps something better is on the horizon.

Battery Technology's Quantum Leap
It takes more than a few R&D announcements before you see real change in a technology. But you know a trend is becoming a reality when there is a steady increase in related technical conferences and product offerings. Today, word is circulating about many different types of new battery technologies, and you can find technical information on them on different Web sites and in print publications. and Sensors are great places to get ahead of the curve.

The recently held 2007 Tokyo Fuel Cell Expo tells us that another quantum leap in battery technology is nearly ready to drive portable-device improvements. For example, Medis Technologies recently released a fuel cell backup that can provide power for cell phones, PDAs, and almost anything else with an internal rechargeable battery. It won't fit into a device, though. That may come later. But right now it offers a real support for rechargeable devices. And methanol and hydrogen fuel cell technologies are likely to provide the higher energy density, longer shelf life, and quicker recharging to support more demanding instrument and computing needs.

Automotive and electronics companies are working closely with fuel cell suppliers such as Millennium Cell, Medis Technologies, and QuantumSphere to advance the technology. Not to be left out, Tokyo-based Kurita Water Industries has proposed and demonstrated solid-state methanol fuel for direct methanol fuel cells at the Tokyo Expo.

Honda, Toyota, Ford, and GM are all getting closer to developing viable battery/fuel cell technologies that can support the all-electric car. With the story still unfolding in Texas and Canada, EEStor remains on track to begin shipping 15 kilowatt-hour electrical energy storage units to ZENN Motor Company in 2007 for use in its electric vehicles. EEStor is very secretive about its breakthrough technology, and only the release from Zenn tells much.

Infrared Industry Consolidation
Speaking of infrared, the most recent news was the acquisition of Land Instruments by AMETEK. And just last week, LumaSense of Santa Clara, CA, announced that it agreed to buy Mikron Infrared, subject to regulatory approval. Mikron was hoisted to the IBD 100 several times in recent months due to its reported earnings. Meanwhile, LumaSense has been steadily growing by acquisition, with Luxtron (the fiber-optic temperature sensor company) already in its bundle.

More next month.