Innovations in the use of thin film SMA materials have enabled the development of a harsh environment pressure sensor useful for combustion monitoring and control. Development of such active combustion control has been driven by rising fuel costs and environmental pressures. Active combustion control, whether in diesel, spark ignited or turbine engines requires feedback to the engine control system in order to adjust the quantity, timing, and placement of fuel charges. To be fully effective, sensors must be integrated into each engine in a manner that will allow continuous combustion monitoring (turbine engines) or monitoring of each discrete combustion event (diesel and SI engines). To date, the sensors available for detection of combustion events and processes have suffered from one or more of three problems:
1) Low sensitivity: The sensors are unable to provide and adequate signal-to-noise ratio in the high temperature and electrically noisy environment of the engine compartment. Attempts to overcome this difficulty have focused on heat removal and/or temperature compensation or more challenging high temperature electronics.
2) Low reliability: Sensors and/or sensor packages have been unable to withstand the engine environment for extended periods of time. Issues have included gross degradation and more subtle issues such as migration of dopants in semiconductor sensor materials.
3) High cost: The materials that have been used, the package concepts employed, and the required support electronics have all contributed to the high cost of the few sensor systems available. Prices have remained high due to the limited demand associated with the poor reliability and the high price itself.
Ternary titanium nickel alloys, with platinum group metal substitution for the nickel, are deposited as thin films on MEMS-based diaphragms and patterned to form strain gages of a standard metal film configuration. The strain induced phase transformation of the SMA is used as a natural signal enhancement. These sensors are maintained at a temperature just in excess of the austenite finish temperature (Af). When the diaphragm is deformed by an applied pressure, the film undergoes the reversible martensite phase transformation. The fraction of the austenite transformed to martensite is a fraction of the applied pressure. The large difference in the resistivity of the two phases results in a very sensitive strain gage, and hence a pressure sensor with a very high gage factor. The combination of the thin film and the fact that the transformation is strain induced (rather than thermally induced) results in a sensor with very high response rate. In fact, the response rate of the sensor has been shown to be strictly a function of the mechanical response of the diaphragm. Unlike other sensor systems, the temperature of the SMA sensor is controlled above the temperature of the local environment. By controlling above the temperature of the environment, the sensor is largely immune to temperature fluctuations that can affect the response of other sensors.
This technology has been demonstrated for a variety of target temperature regimes and a variety of pressure regimes. Sensor design and testing to date has ranged from 180C to >500C; and design pressures of 50 to 3500 psi, with higher pressures achievable. Characterization has included analysis of the response rate, the temperature sensitivity, reliability, and the effect of gross alloy changes. Sensor performance has also been evaluated in a diesel engine test cell. Ongoing work includes the sensitivity to minor composition changes, sensitivity to film thickness, and extended reliability and engine testing.