Northeastern Professor Develops A Smarter Flame Detector

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The Future of Flame Detection

Flame detection is not a new concept; there has been and will always be a need to detect unforeseen fires, though only in recent history has technology allowed us to approach the problem efficiently. The use of conventional detectors for smoke and flames has not only become useful, but frequently a requirement in places such as construction sites, airplanes, and even in our homes. However, these detectors need a constant source of power and regular upkeep to ensure that the devices are working properly; a system which requires significant overhead to maintain.

Matteo Rinaldi

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

Now, thanks to Northeastern University Professor Matteo Rinaldi and his lab, the Northeastern Sensors and Nano Systems Laboratory, that may change. Rinaldi and his team have developed a special flame-detector that utilizes an infrared sensor that not only detects flames, but repurposes the energy of the flame itself to illicit a reaction from the detector. The detector uses the energy harnessed from the flame to activate a micro-switch in the device, which then connects a remote power source, such as a battery, to a radio transmitter or alarm, thereby alerting nearby personnel to the presence of a fire.

The Switch

While repurposing a flame’s energy to power a switch in the detector is in-and-of-itself an impressive feat, the real genius behind the tech is in the switch, according to Rinaldi. The problem with modern detectors is that they require a continual source of energy to remain active, necessitating either batteries or some other power source to be effective. The switch in Rinaldi’s detector allows the battery to remain dormant until the switch connects it to a radio transmitter, thereby conserving the battery’s energy until there is something in the environment to which it needs to respond. Since the presence of a flame in the environment powers the switch, the switch need not rely on a built-in power source, allowing the battery itself to maintain its charge for longer periods of time.

Detectors that once required a battery-change every few months could potentially last a decade before requiring any sort of maintenance. “A lot of what we do requires a waste of energy that we do not require,” says Rinaldi. “We invented this new approach that really applies in general to many things that allows for event driven capability…. A device smart enough to consume power only when there is a need.” Not only is this convenient for traditional detectors, such as the ones we use in our home, but also in places that can be hard to access, like in aircraft or construction sites; by reducing the number of times a detector needs to be fitted with a new battery, the time, cost and occasional hazards incurred by changing these hard-to-reach detectors are significantly reduced.

Stipulations of A New Design

Matteo Rinaldi

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Rinaldi’s new detector must require some additional space to house the switch; after all, he has added a feature to technologies currently implemented in many smoke detectors, there must be some spacial overhead to accommodate the revolutionary technology. And it does, though on a scale so negligible that it has virtually no impact on the design of the detector itself. According to Rinaldi, these switches are produced on a micro-scale, which rivals the width of a hair follicle. Many switches can be fitted to a tiny chip, which can be affixed to a detector without necessitating any significant extra space requirement. This means that existing flame detectors could be replaced by Rinaldi’s new design with relative ease.

If this new technology is really about the switch in the flame-detector and less about the flame detector itself, couldn’t that switch be repurposed to accommodate many different types of detectors? Yes, they can, and Rinaldi and his team have already undertaken several other projects to gear their state-of-the-art micro-switch to address detection in agriculture, monitoring power grids, and even tracking the number of people in a room. “This is revolutionary when we think about having billions of these wireless sensors and communication devices deployed everywhere in the world,” says Rinaldi. “I think it is something that we soon will realize we cannot live without.”

Written by Joseph Burns

Interested in more Northeastern University tech? Check out these articles:

Northeastern Professor Partners With Audax Medical, Inc. To Combat Covid-19

A Better Design For Aerial Drones

Feature image – Photo courtesy of Susanne Nilsson. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons 2.0 license found here.

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