Wireless sensors in Automobile Industry

R&D Magazine has selected Filter Sensing Technologies (FST) to receive R&D 100 Award for the RF-DPFTM particulate filter sensor. The R&D 100 Award that recognizes the top 100 new technology products of the year.

MIT spinout Filter Sensing Technologies (FST) that was acquired by CTS Corporation (NYSE:CTS) in October 2015, a leading designer and manufacturer of sensors, actuators and electronic components to OEMs in the aerospace, communications, defense, industrial, information technology, medical, and transportation markets, invented sensors that use radio frequency signals — commonly used to transmit and receive data from wireless devices — to measure in real-time exactly how much soot and ash builds up in engine exhaust filters. These data help automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) — which build engines and vehicles — to program engines to burn fuel more efficiently to clean the filters.

MIT_Filter_Sensing_600x450Now the company manufactures  Radio-frequency (RF) sensors for direct, real-time measurement of soot and ash in diesel particulate filters (DPF) and gasoline particulate filters (GPF).  FST’s RF sensing systems provide improved exhaust afterteatment system control and advanced diagnostics, enabling reducing fuel consumption and system costs.

This is great advancement for automotive industry by helping diesel engines use less fuel while curbing soot and ash emissions.

“The industry dynamics are such that it is challenging for a small company to scale and meet OEM requirements of quality and volume. This means additional resources for scaling up and manufacturing” to meet those requirements, says FST co-founder and sensor co-inventor Alex Sappok PhD ’09, former CEO of FST and now director of RF sensors for CTS.

Currently, the FST sensors are being piloted with OEMs across the United States, Europe, and Japan for commercial vehicles as well as construction and agricultural equipment. The sensors could be available to the automotive industry within a few years.

FST sensors transmit a radio frequency signal very similar to those used for cell phones, through part of the vehicle’s emissions-control system. As soot and ash accumulate in the filter, the signal strength decreases — the weaker the signal, the more buildup. “It’s the same concept as going through a tunnel on your phone and losing a signal,” Sappok says.

These data re received by the onboard engine-control system, so the engine only initiates self-cleaning when needed and cuts off when the filter is cleaned, saving fuel and cutting costs for operators.

The sensors have so far proved effective in field and engine tests. In a two-year study with heavy-duty trucks operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation, funded in part by the Department of Energy, the sensors demonstrated the potential to cut the frequency and duration of filter regeneration in half in some cases, which may enable a 1 to 2 percent fuel savings. This can be significant for fleets of trucks such as those in the study, which use roughly 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.

Launching FST was a “classic MIT story,” Sappok says, where two researchers from different backgrounds combined forces to innovate and launch a startup. FST’s co-founder and sensor co-inventor is Leslie Bromberg ’73, PhD ’77, a research scientist at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

Forming an unofficial collaboration, Sappok and Bromberg began constructing a proof-of-concept sensor that measured not soot but wooden toothpicks stuck in a filter — which have the same nonconductive properties as soot. “We found out we could count how many toothpicks were in a filter,” Sappok says, laughing. “We presented at a conference that we could count toothpicks.”

From there, Sappok built a suitcase-sized sensor out of his basement, which he and Bromberg hauled around to OEMs worldwide for testing — which made clear the sensor’s commercial potential. “The fact that OEMs were willing to pay for us to come out with our prototype and conduct measurements,” Sappok says. “That’s when we thought there were some real interest.”

In 2008, Sappok and Bromberg launched FST and entered the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, “which was a crash course on the whole operational and financial side of a business,” says Sappok.

The co-founders also went through the MIT Venture Mentoring Service’s VentureShips program, which matches startups with entrepreneurial MIT students who work through business problems and other issues. In turn, the students learn tricks of the trade from the startup founders.

After launching FST, the co-founders took advantage of networking events from the Startup Exchange (STEX), created by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program. Last January, STEX sent Sappok to Tokyo for a technology showcase and conference, where they met several Japanese OEMs who are now a few of FST’s major partners.

“That program is a way to get an introduction to customers across the world,” Sappok says, adding, “It’s a concrete example of how powerful the MIT innovation ecosystem can be.”