Award lubricates ultrasound spinout

Sensor technology that can monitor and predict the failure of mechanical seals has won the inaugural ERA Foundation Award from The Royal Academy of Engineering.


Sensor technology that can monitor and predict the failure of mechanical seals has won University of Sheffield research assistant Phil Harper the inaugural £40,000 ERA Foundation Award from The Royal Academy of Engineering.



The Award has been established to recognise entrepreneurial researchers working in UK universities in the field of electro-technology who are at an early stage in their career and who demonstrate both considerable entrepreneurial promise and the potential to benefit the UK‘s future prosperity.



Harper’s winning entry outlines the technical development and commercialisation of a patented ultrasound solution, developed jointly with the University of Bristol. The method monitors the thin layer of lubricant separating the stationary and rotating rings of mechanical seals, using a piezo-electric ultrasonic sensor and specialist software. If this liquid layer is too thick, leakage occurs; if too thin, the surfaces come into contact and the seal fails.



Mechanical seals are used in a wide range of pumping applications, such as water pumps, turbines, compressors and oilrigs. Until now, there has been no non-destructive method of measuring the liquid layer thickness despite the durability of seals being crucial to plant operation and the significant costs associated with their failure.



Harper has founded a company, Tribosonics, to exploit the commercial applications of the sensor technology through consultancy and licensing opportunities, which has kindled interest from major seal manufacturers.



Harper’s prize includes £30,000 to be used to develop the commercial potential of his business proposition and a personal £10,000 cash sum. He will also be assigned a mentor from the judging panel for two years.



Harper’s university contract ends in June this year, by which time he hopes to have submitted his PhD thesis.



He said, “Receiving this award will enable us to develop a commercial application for this groundbreaking technology. Using ultrasound technology means we can look inside machines for faults and damage linked to lubrication, without damaging the machines themselves. This really is an important breakthrough in engineering precision components and I’m looking forward to taking it out into industry.”



Harper is also actively examining potential applications in other areas of thin film measurement, such as in journal and thrust bearings and artificial joints.