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Making tree-huggers out of diesel engines through RF sensors

17 Dec 2015  | Rob Matheson

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FST sensors transmit a radio frequency signal very similar to those used for cell phones, through part of the vehicle's emissions-control system. As soot and ash accumulate in the filter, the signal strength decreases, the weaker the signal, the more build-up. "It's the same concept as going through a tunnel on your phone and losing a signal," Sappok says.

These data re received by the on-board engine-control system, so the engine only initiates self-cleaning when needed and cuts off when the filter is cleaned, saving fuel and cutting costs for operators.

The sensors have so far proved effective in field and engine tests. In a two-year study with heavy-duty trucks operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation, funded in part by the Department of Energy, the sensors demonstrated the potential to cut the frequency and duration of filter regeneration in half in some cases, which may enable a 1-2 per cent fuel savings. This can be significant for fleets of trucks such as those in the study, which use roughly 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.

Classic MIT story

Launching FST was a "classic MIT story," Sappok said, where two researchers from different backgrounds combined forces to innovate and launch a startup.

In 2005, Sappok, then a PhD student in mechanical engineering, delivered a presentation as part of a speaker series in the MIT Sloan Automotive Laboratory, which focused on diesel filter technologies that aim to lower emissions, and on issues related to measuring build-up. In the audience was Bromberg, who had studied RF technologies during his time in academia. Bromberg had earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and PhD in nuclear engineering/plasma physics, both from MIT, in the 1970s.

"...[Bromberg] came up to me after the presentation and asked, 'Have you ever thought of using RF technology to measure what's going on in these filters?'" Sappok noted. "It's something I had no background in and never would have come across myself."

Forming an unofficial collaboration, Sappok and Bromberg began constructing a proof-of-concept sensor that measured not soot but wooden toothpicks stuck in a filter, which have the same nonconductive properties as soot. "We found out we could count how many toothpicks were in a filter," Sappok said, laughing. "We presented at a conference that we could count toothpicks."

From there, Sappok built a suitcase-sized sensor out of his basement, which he and Bromberg hauled around to OEMs worldwide for testing, which made clear the sensor's commercial potential. "The fact that OEMs were willing to pay for us to come out with our prototype and conduct measurements," Sappok said. "That's when we thought there were some real interest."

In 2008, Sappok and Bromberg launched FST and entered the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, "which was a crash course on the whole operational and financial side of a business," stated Sappok.

The co-founders also went through the MIT Venture Mentoring Service's VentureShips programme, which matches startups with entrepreneurial MIT students who work through business problems and other issues. In turn, the students learn tricks of the trade from the startup founders.

After launching FST, the co-founders took advantage of networking events from the Startup Exchange (STEX), created by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program. Last January, STEX sent Sappok to Tokyo for a technology showcase and conference, where they met several Japanese OEMs who are now a few of FST's major partners.

"That programme is a way to get an introduction to customers across the world," Sappok said, adding, "It's a concrete example of how powerful the MIT innovation ecosystem can be."

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