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Process instrumentation

Advances in Flowmeter Technology

If you haven’t looked at flowmeters lately, you may be surprised at how far
many sensor and signal processing technologies have evolved in recent years.

Trevor Ball, Robert Zaun, c Conditioning orifice plates

Source: Rosemount
Amy Johnson, and Mark Kester, require less straight pipe up and
Emerson Proce ss M an a ge m e n t downstream while still providing

superior measurement performance.
c Improved orifice technology
hile some flow- facilitates transmitter-direct mount-
meters haven’t ing and installs in existing raised-face
changed much flanges.
in 50 years, c Averaging pitot tubes, with
others have insertion technology and low pres-
made significant sure drop, have been made more
improvements. Some the biggest accurate.
changes have been in electron- Transmitter advancements include
ics and advanced diagnostics that more sophisticated diagnostics, wire-
make flowmeters much more useful less networking, and multivariable
for automation and process control. capabilities:
Much of the instrumentation c Built-in transmitter diagnostics
market has been in flux for the past can go beyond internal verification,
two years, thanks to problematic using statistical process monitoring
economic conditions, so predictions to detect abnormal situations such as
about which flow sensor types are fluid composition changes or impulse
gaining and which are declining Magnetic flowmeters are immune to many line plugging.
in use vary widely. Market analysts challenging application problems. This mag- c Careful power management can
seem to agree, however, that where meter is not affected by sludge buildup in a reduce consumption to the point
technology improvements have wastewater treatment plant. that battery powering and wireless
been made—such as differential communication are practical. This
pressure, ultrasonic, Coriolis, and can lower installation costs and
vortex flowmeters—these are gaining in popularity, while allow measurements to be made in inaccessible loca-
some of the more traditional flow sensors, such as tur- tions.
bine and positive displacement, are declining. c Multivariable DP flowmeters can calculate mass and
Let’s look at a group of flowmeter technologies, energy flow with a single pipe penetration, replacing the
examine their general characteristics and see some need to install up to 10 separate devices.
recent improvements. With these advancements, DP flowmeters have con-
tinued to be a growing technology and remain an
DP still a standard industry standard.
Differential-pressure (DP) flowmeters all work on the same
simple principal: the pressure drop across a restriction is Magnetic for tough liquids
proportional to flow rate. They can be engineered for spe- Magnetic flowmeters or magmeters function on the
cific characteristics to provide best results in a broad set of principle of Faraday’s Law, which states that a conductor
applications, including custody transfer, process control, and moving through a magnetic field will generate a voltage
monitoring. DP flowmeters are easy to calibrate, which low- proportional to its speed. In a magmeter, the conductor is
ers maintenance costs, often enough to justify replacing old the fluid passing through the sensor, and the relationship
DP devices with newer, more sophisticated units. among voltage generated, magnetic field strength, and
Advancements in DP flow technology include both velocity is established through calibration.
the primary element and transmitters. Even the basic Magmeters can provide a highly accurate volumetric
orifice plate, long the industry standard, has seen many flow measurement, cause no pressure loss through the
improvements: sensor, and can be scaled to line sizes from 0.1 to 120 in.
Applied Automation September 2010 • A11
Process instrumentation

diameter. A magmeter can handle wide turndown, and an attractive

Source: Rosemount
aggressive slurry flows such as min- price level compared to other sen-
ing slurries and pulp stock, appli- sors, especially in line sizes of 6 in. or
cations that are very difficult for smaller. Adoption continues to grow
other types of sensors. as users recognize the advantages this
There are practical limitations, metering technology.
however. For example, the pro- One disadvantage of vortex meters
cess fluid must be conductive and is their inability to measure very low
magmeters cannot be used with flows. For measurable vortices to be
gas or steam. generated there needs to be a mini-
mum velocity. The specific threshold
Coriolis for precision depends on the device and fluid
Coriolis flow measurement is parameters.
based on the principle that as a
fluid moves through an oscillat- Ultrasonics still developing
ing tube vibrating at its resonant While ultrasonic flowmeters were
frequency, forces are induced first introduced in 1963, they have
which cause the tube to twist. The improved so much in the past 50
amount of twist is directly propor- years that they are still considered a
tional to the mass flow rate of the “high-technology” device by some
fluid flowing through the tube. market analysts.
Density is measured at the same Replacing old orifice plate DP sensors with There are two main technical
time, as the mass per unit volume modern Annubar sensors let a paper mill approaches: Doppler and transit time:
of the fluid in the fixed volume of increase steam pressure and raise production. c A Doppler meter sends an ultra
the tubes increases or decreases sonic signal across a pipe, measures
in proportion to the resonant the signal reflected off particles in
frequency. Dividing the density by the mass provides a the moving fluid, and computes flow speed by measuring
highly accurate calculation of volumetric flow. the Doppler shift.
By providing highly accurate multivariable measure- c A transit time unit transmits two ultrasonic signals
ments over a wide turndown, Coriolis meters have prov- to a receiver on the other side of the pipe, one with the
en to be ideal for a wide range of applications, including flow and one against the flow. It measures the difference
process and quality control, fiscal custody transfer, batch- in transit times between the two signals to calculate flow.
ing, mass balance, and more. Because a mass measure- Recent developments in ultrasonic flowmeters include
ment is unaffected by changes in pressure, temperature, the ability to measure gas and low flows, and configura-
density, and viscosity, they are increasingly used in place tions that measure both Doppler and transit time. The
of volumetric meters. Moreover, sophisticated analysis of fastest-growing application for ultrasonic flowmeters is
liquid characteristics is possible, including viscosity and custody transfer of petroleum fluids.
specific gravity.
Because of their ability to provide increase savings Thermal mass for gas
and efficiency, Coriolis flowmeters are one of the few A thermal mass flowmeter measures flow by detecting the
technologies that increased sales over the past two amount of heat convected from a heated surface to the fluid
years. More recent developments, including the ability to flowing over it. Thermal mass flow meters are almost entirely
measure accurately in the presence of entrained gas and used for measuring gas.
the advent of two-wire loop-powered Coriolis meters, Two methods are used: capillary and immersible:
increase the technology’s utility. - In a capillary sensor, a small portion of the gas is diverted
to a small, heated capillary tube that has two RTD temperature
Vortex the workhorse sensors wrapped around the outside. The RTDs measure the
Vortex flowmeters work on a principle called the von rate at which the gas carries off the heat.
Karmen effect, which states that when flow passes by a - An immersible sensor is completely located in the pipe,
bluff body or shedder bar, it generates vortices downstream usually in the form of a probe. This makes it suitable for a wide
of the bluff body. The frequency of the vortices is propor- range of pipe diameters and mass flow rates. For very large
tional to flow velocity. A vortex sensor typically uses an pipes, the probe may have more than one measuring point.
transducer to detect the frequency of the vortices and trans-
mit a flow signal. Mechanical solutions
Vortex flowmeters are an accurate and reliable instru- Sensors built around mechanical approaches date
mentation workhorse, and can be used to measure liquid, back centuries and still have a large installed base, but
steam, or gas and provide good accuracy, high reliability, their market position in most areas is eroding in the
A12 • September 2010 Applied Automation
face of electronically-based approaches with no mov- Similar technologies applied to DP flowmeters can probe
ing parts. Most mechanical sensor designs available beyond the health of the device by detecting process
today use some form of electronic signal processing, anomalies. In one case, such information from a flowme-
however they still depend on a rotating element turn- ter allowed a large chemical manufacturer to detect an
ing in bearings. upset in catalytic flow approximately 30 minutes before
Turbine flowmeters have been around since 1790 it reached a critical “stick-slip flow” condition. Operators
and rely upon a spinning rotor, which can be a were able to take preventive actions promptly and avoid-
paddlewheel, propeller, or a similar device. Flow is ed a shut down.
derived from the speed of the rotor as it spins in the Being able to verify calibration automatically can save
passing fluid. considerable amounts of money. For example, breweries
Positive displacement (PD) flowmeters are also an have to verify calibration of flowmeters used to measure
old approach and measure flow by making the fluid the amount of alcohol produced for tax purposes. The
displace a device such as a piston, gear, nutating U.S. FDA 27 CFR Part 25 requires that, “…the brewer
disk, rotary vane, or diaphragm. PD flowmeters can shall periodically test the measuring device.” One brew-
be extremely precise and have a very wide turndown ery had 12 magmeters that fell under this requirement,
range, however they can cause a large pressure drop so they contracted with an outside organization to
and accurate movements are expensive. verify the flowmeters twice a year. At $1,600 per meter
per verification, this cost $38,400 per year. Downtime
Not your father’s transmitter while the meters were being calibrated cost $470,000 in
For 50 years, flowmeters have used transmitters; that lost revenue.
is, a device that converts the native signal from the The brewery replaced the old flowmeters with newer
flow sensor to a standard format analog signal, typi- units that had an internal meter verification diagnostic.
cally either a 4-20 mA current or a 3-15 psi pneumatic Now, the checks are performed automatically, with virtu-
pressure that can be transmitted back to the control ally no interruption to the process, saving the brewery
room or fed into a local controller. more than $500,000 per year.
Pneumatic transmitters are all but gone from the
scene, but most modern field devices still communi- Flowmeter diagnostic functions
cate via a 4-20 mA signal over a twisted-pair cable. Diagnostic functions can be used as practical tools to
Today, they also connect via HART, wireless HART, and diagnose process problems affecting the sensors.
fieldbus networks. Modern transmitters are bristling Sensor failure and degradation—Most transmitters
with electronics, computers, and intelligence that allow
them to perform diagnostics and advanced functions Diagnosing Magmeters

of all kinds, such as calculate mass flow in a DP or
vortex flowmeter, or detect something as subtle as the very type of flowmeter has its own specific diagnos-
changing of beer brands with a Coriolis meter. tics. Using magmeters as an example, here are some
Ever since manufacturers put the first microproces- special diagnostic functions they have available:
sors into transmitters, operators have had the ability
Ground and wiring fault detection—A transmitter
to perform diagnostic and calibration functions. In
continuously monitors signal amplitudes over a wide
the early days and into the present, this was done in
the field with a handheld HART communicator, which range of frequencies. If the amplitude of the signal at
required the operator to physically plug in to access either 50 or 60 Hz (the most common ac cycle frequen-
internal transmitter data. Today, fieldbus networks cies) exceeds 5 mV, that is an indication of a ground or
and HART allow such functions to be performed from wiring issue.
the control room. Asset management software plat- High process noise—This diagnostic checks to see if
forms can obtain sensor data from the transmitter
there is a process condition causing unstable or noisy
and perform necessary diagnostics without sending
readings, such as high levels of chemical reactions or
out a technician.
entrained gas in the liquid. The transmitter monitors sig-
Automated diagnostics nal amplitudes over a wide range of frequencies, checks
Diagnostic functions available today range from those the signal to noise ratio, and alarms if the signal to noise
that seek out specific problems to those that constantly ratio exceeds limits.
monitor the general health of a flowmeter system. For Empty Pipe—False readings can occur when a pipe is
example, the Micro Motion Smart Meter Verification sys- empty, such as in batching operations. This diagnostic
tem can check the health and performance of the entire
determines when a pipe is empty, sets the flow rate to
Coriolis unit, sensor and electronics, while the device is
zero, and alerts the operator.
in line and the process is flowing. This provides substan-
tial savings by reducing manpower and calibration costs.
Applied Automation September 2010 • A13
Process instrumentation

can determine when a sensor has failed, or when the used a Coriolis meter to detect changes in beer, diagnos-
sensor is reading too high or too low. Flowmeters with tics in multivariable meters can determine liquid fractions
moving parts, such as PD and turbine meters, can suf- in gas and pipelines, liquid condensate giveaway, and
fer wear or erosion, and deposits on the inside wall of other situations where fluid composition can change.
a flowmeter can affect performance. Flow transmitters Electrical loop diagnostics—Unwanted electrical loop
can detect such problems. changes, such as water in the housing, ground loop issues,
Plugged line—Coriolis flowmeters can experience corrosion, or an unstable power supply, are all conditions
long-term coating buildup or plugging. By monitoring the that may affect the output. Sophisticated diagnostics can
voltage required to obtain sensor readings, diagnostics can monitor the integrity of the electrical loop from the flow-
detect the presence of coated or plugged sensor lines. DP meter to the host system and send alerts when unwanted
flowmeters can also detect plugged impulse lines. A gas- conditions may jeopardize the operation.
to-liquids (GTL) plant was able to employ this technology
to improve process quality and increase uptime by using More than a process variable
the information to optimize maintenance schedules. Modern flowmeters do much more than just measure
Spikes—Entrained air, gas breakout in condensate, cavi- flow. With their advanced diagnostics, signal processing
tations, or other problems can cause measurement error and computing functions, flowmeters can save a user a
or damage to downstream equipment. The transmitter can considerable amount of money in maintenance, calibra-
measure process noise and detect the presence of these tion, and troubleshooting. Why is there a control problem
process issues. At one industrial gas manufacturer’s billing in the process? Ask your flowmeter.
site, a reciprocating gas compressor was causing pulsation
in the flow measurement line leading to inaccurate bill- Trevor Ball, Robert Zaun, Amy Johnson, and Mark
ing. Advanced diagnostics incorporated in a DP flowmeter Kester work as product managers in Emerson Process
were able to detect this situation so it could be corrected. Management’s various instrumentation divisions, including
Composition—Similar to the example where a brewery Rosemount, Micro Motion, and Daniel.

How can updating the sensor technology benefit you?

H ere are some user examples of benefitting from

improved sensor and transmitter technology from
a variety of industries and applications:
A pulp & paper plant in Germany was using traditional
orifice plates to measure steam flow to three of their
concentration to ±0.1° Plato/Balling, and provides a
±0.05% volume flow rate of the wort as it passes to
the brew kettle.
The large turndown range of vortex flowmeters
makes them suitable for applications with a wide flow.
paper machines. To help increase production, it upgrad- A paper mill wanted to add a new grade of paper that
ed the installation with a Rosemount Annubar mass required high gloss. High gloss paper demands a high
flowmeter (see photo page A12) which had a lower steam flow rate, while low gloss paper demands a low
pressure loss and provided fully-compensated mass flow steam flow rate. Adding the high gloss grade increased
measurement. the range of steam flow seen by the flowmeter, and the
A wastewater treatment facility had problems mea- low end steam flow could not be accurately measured
suring flow of thickened sludge during custody transfer any longer by the conventional flow meter. To solve the
to a waste disposal company. The high solids content of problem, the mill installed a Rosemount 8800 Vortex
the sludge, and its coating of the pipe, confused other Flowmeter to measure steam flow to the supercalender,
types of flow meters. The plant was paying too much to which resulted in a more reliable and accurate signal at
the disposal company because of the inaccurate mea- even the lowest flow rates.
surement, and the maintenance costs of flushing the At California Paperboard, signal spikes were costing
lines to improve accuracy were high. The plant installed $90,000 to $180,000 per year in lost production and
a Rosemount 8750A magnetic flowmeter (see photo wasted raw materials. The flowmeter for the pulp stock
page A11), which was not affected by the high solids sent a feedforward signal to the dryend scanner on a
content or the build up. Fourdrinier machine. When a spike occurred, it forced
Brewers often use the multifaceted capabilities of a the control system to disable automatic control. Product
Coriolis meter. One company installed a Coriolis meter inconsistency increased, and a half-hour of produc-
on a Lauter Tun and improved efficiency of the brewing tion time was lost with each episode. The problem was
process while reducing waste and eliminating time- solved by installing a magmeter with digital signal pro-
consuming sampling. The device measures the wort cessing, which filtered out the spikes.

A14 • September 2010 Applied Automation