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Mesh Networks to Boost Energy

Under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), a trio of companies will use wireless mesh networks to increase energy efficiency and reduce industrial motor energy consumption.

General Electric is leading the way with Sensicast Systems and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in a project that is part of the DoE's $61 million "Industries of the Future" program. The program employs a 50/50 cost share component, which means the DoE and industry partners share risks equally.

The three-year, $6 million program has three phases. First, the group will conduct a feasibility study between now and the end of the year to understand technical challenges. During the second phase, which will start next January and continue throughout the year, the groups will build prototype systems and complete proof-of-concept experiments. Finally, the groups will install a complete system at a test site and collect and analyze operational data.

Wireless mesh networking is not yet an 802.11 standard, but it has been under development for some time.

In a true mesh topology, every node has a connection to every other node in the network. There are two types of mesh topologies: full mesh and partial mesh.

Full mesh topology occurs when every node has a circuit connecting it to every other node in a network. Full mesh is expensive to implement, but yields the greatest amount of redundancy -- in the event that one of those nodes fails, network traffic can be directed to any of the other nodes. Full mesh is usually reserved for backbone networks.

Partial mesh topology is less expensive to implement and yields less redundancy than full mesh topology. With partial mesh, some nodes are organized in a full mesh scheme, but others are only connected to one or two nodes in the network. Partial mesh topology is commonly found in peripheral networks connected to a full meshed backbone.

"Wireless sensor networks have the potential to provide cost-effective new technology to dramatically increase energy efficiency throughout industry," Dan Sexton, project leader at GE Global Research, said in a statement. "GE's vision for the future includes using wireless sensor technology in a wide variety of industrial and consumer applications to improve the way we monitor, protect and control the world around us."

In the GE/Sensicast/RPI model, wireless sensors will be installed on selected motors in a plant operation. The sensors will monitor functions critical to each motor's condition and efficiency based on a combination of measurements, such as vibration, temperature and power quality. The data will then be transmitted wirelessly to a computer that analyzes the data from each sensor. Any potential problems will be transmitted to plant personnel via phone, pager or e-mail in advance, allowing plant personnel to repair or replace motors before their production capacity drops or they fail entirely.

GE and the others are expected to start by analyzing the efficiency of industrial motors, which use 65 percent of the total electricity consumed by U.S. industry. They are used in virtually every industrial and manufacturing process, ranging from large pumps for municipal water plants to compressors that transport fuel through pipelines to simple air conditioning units.

Sensicast is providing the mesh networking software that eliminates signal interference and joins the wireless network into the existing plant network. Meantime, RPI is developing physics-based models for analysis and lifetime prediction of the motors.

"Electric motor driven systems consume 23 percent of all electricity used in the United States -- a truly staggering number," Sensicast CEO Paul Sereiko said in a statement. "Working with GE and the Department of Energy to deploy smart wireless mesh networking technology for improving these motors' energy efficiency is a real world example of technology making a significant difference."

There are two major advantages of the technology being developed for this program, according to the consortium. The first is a low-power communications network that will operate in an industrial environment for years on a single battery.

The second advantage is that the two-way communications network will enable the use of control applications. For example, if a monitoring system is being used on a generator and has sent notification that it is running too hot, the monitoring personnel could issue wireless commands back to the generator for it to turn on its exhaust fan.

Other applications under development include process monitoring and control, asset tracking, and patient monitoring.