It was a winter afternoon, but scorching hot for this bunch of students perched on a scaffold an arm’s length from an elevated pipe in an oil refinery. The pipe radiates heat as the processed oil flowing through it can be over 300 degrees Celsius.
The students were from premier engineering college IIT Madras in south India. They had made sensors out of a patent-pending material that can withstand temperatures up to 350 deg C. Attached to oil pipelines, these internet-enabled devices use ultrasonic signals to measure the pipe’s thickness and hence, the degree of corrosion. The signals can be constantly monitored and analyzed on the cloud in real time for pipe replacement alerts.
Daniel Raj David, leading the student group, was exhausted. He needed a chilled drink but that meant a trek through the refinery for a kilometer and back. He decided to give it another ten minutes to see if the system would finally work in the field like it did in the lab.
They had spent the day attaching the sensors and monitoring their signals in an oscillograph on the scaffold. The signals, plotted like a heart rate chart, hadn’t looked right – just as in previous trials during a frustrating nine months of field testing. They had had to find better vendors when the connectors for the sensors melted, even though they were supposed to be heat-proof. Vibrations from loose fittings had interfered with the signals. Then the cables relaying the sensor signals had turned out to be faulty.
This time they thought they had got everything sorted, but the signals were still not right. On the verge of calling it a day, David recalls seeing the machine turned off and snapping at his friend Harikrishnan. “Dude, switch it on, what are you doing?” David told him. “He switches it on … and we saw the most beautiful signal, like we would see in the lab. Hari was almost in tears… It was a life-changing moment.”
Ready to conquer the world
That was in January. Months of validation followed to make sure it wasn’t a one-off. Now the student startup, Detect Technologies, is negotiating orders to deploy thousands of its sensors at the world’s largest oil refinery in Jamnagar, Gujarat, operated by India’s biggest private corporation, Reliance Industries, as well as other public sector oil and gas corporations.
The startup, incorporated last year, was incubated in IIT Madras and supported with a grant of US$7,780, followed by a loan of the same amount. This year, it was in the summer cohort of Bangalore accelerator Axilor. Now, with the product validated, it’s time to scale up.
Today, it announced seed funding of an undisclosed amount from AJ Ventures of the Refex Group, Keiretsu Forum, the Centre for Innovation, Incubation, and Entrepreneurship of IIM, Ahmedabad, and Axilor. The funding will help to streamline manufacturing for big orders, because once the sensors are up and running on a large scale in Reliance and other refineries in India, global corporations like Chevron and Shell would be interested too.
The problem of overcoming high temperatures for testing oil and gas pipelines while they’re in operation is a long-standing one, explains David. The practice is to shut the refinery down for a 45-day period once every two or three years for manual checks and pipe replacement. This means millions of dollars lost in downtime. Besides, there’s the risk of a blowout in the intervening time when the refinery is running and the pipes are not under real-time monitoring.
One of the leaders in providing sensors that can work at high temperatures for measuring corrosion in pipes is UK-based Permasense. But the IIT students have another innovation which adds value to their sensors – the use of guided waves. These ultrasonic signals can traverse along 60 meters of the pipeline, extending the range of the sensors and requiring fewer of them to be installed. UK-based Guided Ultrasonics also does this but their sensors don’t have the ultra high temperature capability of the ones by Detect, says David.
Researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute of Silicate Technology have been testing smart materials and reported developing sensors that can withstand up to 900 deg C earlier this year. But that’s still in the lab.
Arduous journey from lab to field
For the students, it all began as a lab project in the Center for Non-Destructive Evaluation (CNDE), which in layman’s terms studies and develops technologies to inspect things without destroying them. One of the students, Tarun Mishra, who is now a co-founder of Detect, developed a new, composite material that could withstand temperatures up to 450 deg C in the lab. He filed for a patent on this material in 2013, along with the CNDE head who guided him, Professor Krishnan Balasubramaniam. The professor is also a co-founder of Detect now.
Daniel David wasn’t a part of it then. He was studying mechanical engineering, while Tarun was in the metallurgy department.
David was bored to death in a practical training project with an auto corporation where he felt he was learning nothing and wasting his time. Professor Balasubramaniam was somebody he looked up to after taking one of his courses, so he asked him if he had anything where he could be useful. Thus, by chance, he landed in the CNDE lab, and got obsessed with how Mishra’s new material could be turned into an industrial product.
Even after they had zeroed in on sensors for process industries like oil and gas, chemicals and fertilizers, getting it out of the lab into field trials was a daunting proposition. These were traditional industries, used to working with known vendors, and not startups, back in 2014. “Pitching to an industry when you’re a bunch of 22-year-olds is difficult. We were also afraid we would not get a second chance if we made an error,” recalls David.
Ultimately, David thinks they were fortunate that a few believers in Reliance took a chance on them and kept their faith through the inevitable trial and error in field tests. He sees a lot of cutting-edge projects going on in various labs of his college, but feels that the ecosystem to commercialize deep tech innovation is lacking in the country.
“Taking a core R&D project and converting it into a commercial proposition takes far more time than something like an ecommerce or logistics or analytics idea,” he says. For the IIT Madras gang, it took four years – and shortly before their Eureka moment, they had almost given up on the idea.
The drones that kept them going
The IITians had a lot going for them. Being incubated in IIT Madras meant they had high-value equipment available at no cost. Their work on core technology attracted students who gave up other projects or the much-sought-after “positions of responsibility” like managing campus festivals, entrepreneur cells, and so on. “We took 30 IIT guys as interns because we didn’t have money to pay full-time employees,” says David. “And they’re still with us.”
Even then, in the long months when the field tests were failing, doubts began to creep in on whether the sensors would work out there and industrial clients would materialize. They knew they had a terrific, diverse team of engineers and an acclaimed professor. So they started looking out for something else the team could do.
They were already out in the field testing their sensors, so they understood some of the other requirements in the oil and gas industry. One of these was the use of drones for inspecting large facilities like boilers.
Most of the drones out there used GPS whose accuracy was 2 meters to 17 meters. Little wonder, industries which require more precision were hardly using them, says David. “The drone companies were trying to do NDT (non-destructive technology), whereas we had expertise in NDT and wanted to build drones.”
Initially, they outsourced the drone bodies and focused on building analytics and computer vision for guidance into them. This allowed them to program the path of drones to inspect boilers hundreds of meters tall at close quarters. And finally, they came up with what David calls the killer differentiator – an Indoor Positioning System (IPS).
They fitted four chips on the insides of boilers when they were not in use. A drone could use these for guidance as it flew about inside the boiler relaying thermal images to analyze for cracks or corrosion. This saved the hassle and time of doing this manually by erecting scaffolds inside boilers. Detect’s IPS drones have an accuracy of up to 20 cm, says David – that is, their margin of error is no more than that.
The drones were a source of revenue aimed at tiding them over. But it so happened that months later, the sensors came good in that magical moment on a January afternoon. Now Detect has two commercially validated products and a world of opportunities to explore.
Four students and their professor have shown the way from lab to field to inspire other startups, but it will be a hard act to follow.
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