Digital sensors fine-tube gas detection and monitoring.
edmonton economic development corporation
PKL Technologies Inc. is a modest Edmonton manufacturer, but founder Perry Kain sees opportunities in the air for the Spectra-1 digital gas detector and monitor, the company’s main product.
The “open-path” device, employing tunable diode laser absorption spectroscopy (TDLAS), is already being deployed for environmental and safety monitoring to detect fugitive emissions and other gas releases.PKL Technologies Inc. is a modest Edmonton manufacturer, but founder Perry Kain sees opportunities in the air for the Spectra-1 digital gas detector and monitor, the company’s main product.
Though he founded PKL in 2005, Kain has only focused full-time on the company since 2010. That’s when he secured space in the Edmonton Research Park (ERP), where the Advance Technology Centre offers technology start-up firms various supports, including space at below market costs.
Apart from outsourcing some work to a computer programmer, Kain remains a one-man show. Credits would list him as CEO, designer and shop-floor assembler of the sturdy and compact instrument package that’s a bit larger than a shoebox. It houses what Kain terms the “core” of the device – namely, a tunable laser diode spectrometer that uses an industrial embedded computer, along with a custom low-noise, laser diode driver circuit.
“Boutique” manufacturing suitably describes PKL’s operation. It could be seen as a throwback to days when meticulous watchmakers crafted timepieces one at a time in their workshops. Or maybe PKL is pointing toward a future where one-person manufacturing is feasible. Compare boutique manufacturing to the transformation brought about by personal computers that have allowed many to run home-based businesses.
Kain concedes turning out a high-tech product as he does on his own would not have been feasible a few decades ago. Then, almost invariably, manufacturing meant investing in design and machine tools to turn out products.
With a sales price of $24,000 – or about half that of earlier-generation analogue gas detectors – much of the PKL sensor’s value lies in its software, which can be readily installed by one person in a small production space.
Gas detectors have been around for years. In fact, Kain previously worked in Edmonton for a manufacturer of analogue gas analysers. While there, the University of Lethbridge physics grad sensed that, just as digitization had allowed for smaller phones, comparable advances could permit lighter (at 8.5 pounds, about half the weight of its analogue predecessor) gas detectors. More importantly, adapting digital process techniques to absorption spectroscopy – using light to determine the chemical composition of a substance by spectral lines emitted by elements – allowed for refinement and updates to the sensor through programming rather than from changing hardware.
“In an analogue device, you have to make changes to resistors, capacitors and other components – something we don’t have to do,” Kain explains. “When you’re making changes in a digital device, you’re making changes in software, digital filters and the like. You re-program and it’s done. That makes development a lot easier.”
Keeping it simple
Rather than make physical prototypes, as he did for analogue sensors, Kain uses 3D CAD design software SolidWorks – a faster and, over time, less-costly development tool.
“My design philosophy is to keep it simple,” say Kain. “With the optical design and when you’re dealing with spectroscopy, by minimizing components, the less noise sources you have, the better the instrument performs and less it costs to make.”
Kain designs and then assembles the devices using off-the-shelf computer, power supply and other components, which are integrated with elements, notably the laser circuits that he solders.
“If you make 40 or 50 units a year, it would make more sense to outsource the boards, but I’m not there yet. If you’re doing 20 or less, it’s more cost-effective to spend the time and do it yourself.”
Although they could be moved, historically gas detection devices, were designed to detect and analyze gas levels right at a monitor’s location. Traditionally sensors “sniffed” the targeted gases. In contrast, PKL’s analyzers “see” the gas across an open path. A laser beam is tuned to reflect off a target up to a kilometre away and then bounces back to the main instrument for analysis. It can detect the presence of the targeted gas over a much wider area than a site-specific sensor.
While Kain believes he has led the way, others are developing similar products, although he suspects “there are many engineers and people in industry who have no idea that you can monitor gas over long distances in this way.”
Existing Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometers assess numerous gases at once. But Kain notes the accuracy of these devices is limited. Furthermore, his gas-specific sensor does not generate false alarms and performs reliably even when unattended.
The parts on all PKL TDLAS units are identical except for the laser diodes, the critical gas-specific component, which Kain designs and installs to sense a particular gas (although a single laser diode handles carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide). PKL currently offers sensors for detection of about a dozen gases, including ammonia, methane, hydrogen fluoride, acetylene and ethane.
Different industries and environmental observers are potentially interested in different gases. For instance, aluminium producers might want a device to monitor hydrogen fluoride. Fertilizer firms and agricultural researchers may want to check ammonia levels.
“With ours being a laser-based instrument, we can set up a reflector 500 metres or a kilometre away, allowing monitoring of gas concentrations over huge areas,” Kain says.
Off to market
Science and engineering is the easy part for Kain but he admits to being a reticent marketer. Despite this, he has generated sales to the likes of Agriculture Canada, which sees potential for the PKL system in detecting ammonia and methane in pig barns and bio-digesters. A distributor in Italy contacted Kain and he has been dealing with another distributor in China without a formal arrangement: that’s not a well-defined distribution network.
A TDLAS monitor is not something everyone “must” have and sales likely will remain confined to a pretty limited market. Kain foresees doubling his annual sale in each of the next few years.
“I’ve entertained the idea of finding the right business collaborator, someone with sales offices and the like, who might take some of the marketing burden off me,” he says.
Growth would likely mean emerging from the sparse basement quarters of the Edmonton Research Park’s Biotech Business Development Centre, where PKL moved in mid-2011 from the adjoining Advance Technology Centre incubator. Certainly being a tenant in the research park, which comes under the umbrella of the Edmonton Economic Development Corp., can facilitate networking and marketing. For instance, a PKL sensor has been used to monitor greenhouses gases at the state-of-the-art Edmonton Waste Management Centre, where landfill gases produce electricity fed into the energy grid.
As greenhouse-gas-reduction credits become more negotiable, it will be important to establish baselines and to quantify emissions over time. Through several major energy projects, Alberta has made a $2-billion commitment to carbon capture and storage (CCS). Again, Kain sees potential applications for his sensors in connection with CCS. While carbon capture proponents insist the CO2 injected into the ground will stay sequestered, opponents have claimed it may surface somewhere nearby. Using PKL equipment to watch for CO2 releases could provide the basis for a more measured argument.
Stepped up monitoring of injection sites would benefit PKL. Certainly Perry Kain won’t object to another open path – in this case toward more regulation.
Nordahl Flakstad is an Edmonton-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.