May 6, 2020

Building industrial sensors for hostile environments

Phase Sensors is an Edmonton-based company that develops and builds high-performance custom micro-sensors for industrial monitoring in hostile high-temperature and high-pressure environments. This includes down hole oilwell pressure sensors, fouling sensors for refinery heat exchangers, water monitoring sensors for cooling towers, sensors for monitoring equipment on large marine vessels. And most recently, a high-performance pressure sensor, which can be used in geothermal well monitoring, tsunami detection, and oil well characterization. 

With extensive experience in microfabrication and microelectronics, these guys know their stuff. 

Alberta Innovates has been there in various ways since inception, supporting company founder Chris Holt throughout his client journey – from the time he was an undergraduate student, through to the completion of his postgraduate studies, the formation of Phase Sensors, and the development and commercialization of the company’s sensor products.    

Innovation bred by inspiration 

As a University of Alberta engineering physics undergrad, Holt had the chance to build his first microdevices in the campus nanoFAB facility. A state-of-the-art centre, nanoFAB, funded in part by Alberta Innovates, focuses on academic and industrial applications in micro- and nano-scale fabrication. It’s also a place for students to cut their teeth in the field of microdevices.  

David Rutledge from Phase Sensors is laser welding the stainless steel face shield frame together using a Rofin Laser Welder in the machine photo.
David Rutledge from Phase Sensors using a laser welder.

“The nanoFAB gives students and companies access to 10s of millions of dollars of advanced microfabrication equipment,” says Holt. “Having a facility like this in Alberta, makes it possible to go head to head with renowned institutions from across the globe given that our facilities and tools are just as good or better.” 

That experience, and a graduate student scholarship, inspired Holt to pursue his PhD studies at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Prof. David Mitlin. Mitlin, himself an Alberta Innovates’ funding recipient, was working on sensor research and development projects with multiple industry partners.  Holt was involved in these projects, and as the work progressed, his understanding of the oil industry’s need for these types of sensors grew into a desire to become an entrepreneur. He envisioned developing and manufacturing sensors in Alberta and commercializing them around the world.  

A University of Alberta spinoff company is born 

After graduating in 2013, Holt incorporated Phase Sensors and participated in the MNTorship nanoBridge program funded through Alberta Innovates. The program included an award to develop entrepreneurial skills with business mentorship from the U of A, a salary, and covered expenses to use the nanoFAB facility to develop his ideas and continue developing sensor prototypes.   

In addition, the Alberta delegation attending nanoIsrael in 2014 invited Phase Sensors to participate. It was here that Holt learned more about optical sensors and their industrial applications. He set out to learn about optical sensing platforms and apply them to his customers’ challenges. 

Business support leads to opportunity, solutions, and patents 

In 2017, Phase Sensors worked with University of Alberta professor John Davis as part of a Campus Alberta Small Business Engagement grant to build an optical fouling sensor. (Fouling is any kind of deposit accumulating on a surface, including minerals. A fouling sensor detects these deposits.) Using the nanoFAB facilities they built and patented a new sensor, attracting the attention of one of the world’s largest oil & gas companies. The company agreed to pilot the sensor and Holt used a Product Demonstration Program grant to help. 

“Alberta Innovates has played a crucial role in my entire academic and professional career. They sponsored my PhD research through both a personal nanotechnology scholarship, and by funding my PhD project with a nanoWorks grant. This funding allowed me to work with an amazing team and have significant resources to work on very exciting sensor development projects,” says Holt. 

“They helped me start my company went I received the MNTorship grant. Then helped me hire my first employee who ended up securing multiple contracts for our company in data monitoring development. Without Alberta Innovates support, Phase Sensors would not exist.”   

Coaching and community 

Alberta Innovates support has been more than just access to capital; Phase Sensors has also benefited from coaching through the Alberta Innovates Technology Development Advisor program. “Our technology development advisor (Matt Cornall) is in a unique position of having experienced multiple successful technology projects from concept through execution to commercialization,” Holt says.  

“Because he (Cornall) has seen the process multiple times in multiple companies, he’s in a unique and exciting position to provide excellent advice. When talking to Matt, we receive some of the most relevant and helpful advice that we can get from our advisor network.” 

The future 

The Phase Sensors team was in Europe in fall 2019 conducting a pilot test in a major oil company’s laboratory. They brought several sensors and conducted a set of tests in the company’s facility with a team of scientists. “We are currently following up with them for a second visit and continued testing and development,” says Holt.  

The activity continued as the team members found themselves in Dubai over Christmas 2019 piloting a marine vessel monitoring project, and spring 2020 saw them land two major customers for their quartz pressure sensor; one of the customers is a multi-billion-dollar company and world leader in pressure sensor technology.    

“We have been exceeding our targets from our last year’s business plan and we plan to continue executing on it towards 20 employees and 20 million (dollars) in revenue in three years.  Our quartz pressure sensor prototypes are performing very well in the lab and we will be delivering them to customers (this May).  I think we have a bright future and as a team we have a lot of fun building things quickly and solving challenges with artistic and technically excellent solutions.” 


Response to COVID-19

Chris Holt and team have kept their laser welder and laser cutter busy another way lately. They are helping the COVID-19 effort by manufacturing face shields. “We are up to 150 shields produced and can make about 100 per day now if we can find clear plastic for the shields,” Holt says. 

Dr. Christopher Holt, Zachary Kwong, David Rutledge, Richard Hull posing in their manufactured face shields.
Part of the Phase Sensor team (l to R) Christopher Holt, Zachary Kwong, David Rutledge, Richard Hull posing in their manufactured face shields.

In addition, they spent the last week building a prototype sensor to monitor heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature to monitor COVID-19 patients that are sent home from the hospital. 

“We are excited that the prototype might be able to help people in this COVID-19 crisis. A lot of people are sent home from the hospital even with COVID-19, and if we can help them better track their body temperature, pulse rate and breathing rate, they will be safer,” he says. 

“Our expertise in IOT monitoring makes a project like this easy for our company to execute on in a very short timeframe.  We just switch the sensor elements out and we have a commercial-ready system for monitoring.”