Even a small spark of fire on an oil rig can turn into a deadly blaze if not promptly put out, as some of the worst industrial accidents have shown. No wonder then there is rising demand for sophisticated fire detectors for places like drilling platforms, chemical plants and airplane hangars. A super sensitive fire alarm is now on the market, developed during a EUREKA project between a small east German start-up, an Irish SME and a lead partner in South Korea.
‘In the world of fire detectors, the improvement we’ve made is a huge increase,’ says Norbert Neumann, the co-founder of Germany’s InfraTec who worked on project FLAME. ‘We see a growing market.’ Neumann isn’t new to the world of fire detectors. He and friends Mathias Heinze and Mathias Krauß first spotted a niche in the market back in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. They were working as a research assistant in the electrical engineering department at Dresden University of Technology. They set up InfraTec and the business blossomed in newly unified Germany.
‘IN THE WORLD OF FIRE DETECTORS, THE IMPROVEMENT WE'VE MADE IS A HUGE INCREASE.'
Twenty years later, Neumann set to wondering whether making detectors from a different material – a different composition of crystals that detect the glow of a fire – could increase the detector’s capacity to sense fire and sound the alarm. The recent status of South Korea as an associated country to EUREKA meant InfraTec could partner up with iBule, a long-standing supplier of crystals for its detectors. ‘The fact that iBule was also an SME was great,’ says Neumann. Founded by chemical engineer Sang-Goo Lee, who studied his post doctorate at Stanford University in the United States, the two companies’ teams communicated together in English and had a lot in common. ‘iBule was very flexible, very interested in looking for new applications and growing,’ says Neumann.
The pair enlisted the support of Ireland’s General Monitors, specialists in high tech gas monitoring and flame detection, to test the new flame detectors for performance.
GAMBLE PAYS OFF
When a fire starts, it releases hot combustion gases like CO2 and CO. Some of the most popular flame detectors use pyro-electric detectors equipped with narrowband infrared filters. The detectors sense the infrared radiation by reacting to the flame flicker in a frequency range of 2 to 20Hz. But Lee’s team at iBule managed to work out a combination of ferroelectric single crystals – similar to sensors used in ultrasound devices and some flat-panel speakers – which detected fire more accurately and faster. ‘The signal to noise ratio is two to three times higher,’ says Neumann.
The partners say the research was a gamble that was possible through EUREKA backing to secure funding. ‘These experiments were costly but didn’t guarantee results,’ says Lee. The product FLAME developed is now being successfully marketed. iBule has the rights to sell the detectors in Korea. Together the three companies are tapping new export markets. The results are proof that despite daunting costs small companies and the people running them can be some of the most innovative.