January 26, 2017
The Graftel balanced flow meter was recently published in the 2017 NASA Spin-Off Program Publication
Low-Cost Flow Meters Bring Efficiency, Reliability to Nuclear Plants
Energy and Environment
The technology looks unassuming enough: circular metal plates with multiple holes in them. The plates usually sport a large central hole surrounded by perhaps five or six smaller ones, although there may be anywhere from 2 to 200 openings.
But these deceptively simple devices have won awards and saved millions—possibly billions—of dollars across a gamut of industries. The simplicity, which lends itself to a low price tag and high durability, is part of the balanced flow meter’s charm (Spinoff 2004, 2012), but this is only the start of its list of selling points.
Thanks to a relatively recent partnership, nuclear energy has become the latest industry to begin reaping the benefits that accompany these custom-engineered, perforated discs.
In the 1990s, Marshall Space Flight Center undertook research into using artificial intelligence to manage the health of propulsion systems and plant equipment, with the help of a company called Quality Monitoring and Control (QMC). Among various tools and components needed to gather system health data for artificial intelligence programs was a meter to measure the flow of liquid oxygen in the Space Shuttle’s main engines.
Earlier Shuttle engines had included turbine-based liquid oxygen flow meters, but these were abandoned after one of their blades came off during testing and bounced into the propellant throttling valve, causing a fire that totaled both the engine and the test stand it was mounted on in one of the worst test accidents in NASA’s history. In researching artificial intelligence applications, though, the engineers concluded that, aside from any risks they introduced, the flow meters also weren’t nearly accurate enough to detect significant hardware failures.
“The nuclear industry has about the highest standards you can have,” Van Buskirk says. “Graftel is the only company in the United States that really has the talent to do this.”
“We know the plants, and we know the people,” adds Graftel marketing manager Dave Glover.
With an exclusive distribution agreement for selling the meters to nuclear plants, Graftel got to work building on the technology and adapting it for this market, designing custom manifolds with units to measure pressure change, installing temperature sensors, and creating displays that could operate in high-radiation environments, for example.
After years of rigorous testing, verification, and certification, Graftel made its first balanced flow meter sale in 2013 and has been finding customers around the world ever since.
The company gathers requirements and specifications from its customers and passes them on to A+ FlowTek, which uses its software to generate optimal flow plate designs. Graftel then manufactures, tests, certifies, and helps install the meters.