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NETL Prepares Next-generation Sensors to Meet Next-generation Challenges
Laboratory experiment in NETL’s Optical Sensors Lab to test Raman spectroscopy for surface temperature measurement in harsh environments.

More than 135 years ago, Warren Seymour Johnson, a college professor who was frustrated with his inability to regulate the temperature in his classroom, invented what he called the “electric tele-thermoscope.” It was little more than a contraption that rang a bell to alert heating system operators to open or close dampers. It turned out to be the first sensor.

Today, at NETL, researchers are developing sensing systems that use optical fibers thinner than a human hair; monitoring tools that use laser spectroscopy; and devices that can perform sensing functions in environments that are among the harshest on earth. It’s all part of the Laboratory’s challenge to discover, develop, and deploy innovative technologies that help increase energy efficiency, reduce emissions, and enable U.S. energy dominance.

Sensors are detectors that can measure physical quantities like temperature and pressure. The sensors convert measurements into a signal that communicates with an electronic device read by operators who take actions to adjust conditions as necessary. Many of today’s energy applications require sensors that go far beyond Warren S. Johnson’s early vision to keep the temperature in his classroom comfortable.

There are many stories to tell regarding NETL’s efforts in the sensor development field. This month, we will be posting a series of stories that will tell just a few. For example, we will explain how:

  • Tiny new sensors can measure a range of parameters that are critical to important operation of power generation systems
  • Fiber optics are used to monitor operating conditions inside solid oxide fuel cells
  • A new laser induced breakdown spectroscopy system helps monitor subsurface conditions for better recovery of oil and gas
  • Sensors help control corrosion in major pipelines that carry energy products to consumers; and how optical fiber sensors developed at NETL are more reliable and versatile for use in association with gas turbine blades.

The ever-evolving field of sensor research is just part of NETL work to provide breakthroughs and discoveries that support home-grown energy initiatives, stimulate a growing economy, and improve the health, safety, and security of all Americans. We are proud of our results so far and, after reading these stories, we hope our readers agree.


As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.