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Tiny devices offer a sense of the future
Dahlonega company creates sensors that predict the lifespan of certain products
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Ken Watkins shows one of the ovens used to age the sensors at Polymer Aging Concepts in Dahlonega. By baking the sensors, the company can “age” the sensors, allowing them to properly gauge the age of the items where they are placed. - photo by Tom Reed

DAHLONEGA — Polymer Aging Concepts in Dahlonega may be a small company, and yes, they may be using super small technology.

But the new technology they created could make a huge difference.

“Small companies like ours in high technology are, in my belief, the very best solution to maintaining the United States in the global market,” said Ken Watkins, the president and CEO of Polymer Aging Concepts in Dahlonega.

Watkins started the company in 2003 and moved into the current Dahlonega facility in 2008.

The company’s focus is on creating tiny sensors that tell people when things, such as car motors, are about to go bad.

“It is a brand new way of doing this,” Watkins said. “No one else has a simple method of sensing the degradation of products.”

The sensors note the degradation of anything that contains a polymer, including highways, bridges, air crafts and maybe, in the future, even foods and pharmaceuticals.

A polymer is a chain molecule found in many plastics and epoxys.

The concept is exciting, Watkins said, because he believes Polymer Aging Concepts has the possibility to grow and create more high-paying technical, engineering, managerial and domestic manufacturing jobs.

But today, the new technology begins with Lab Manager, Liliane Morato.

In the lab, Watkins said, Morato “makes the heart of the material that actually senses the product degradation.”

Morato first mixes the sensor’s materials, then she puts it in an oven to “age” it.

“We are going to deliver sensors that tell people when a product is going to go bad, but some of these products will last 40 years, and we can’t wait 40 years to tell what it reads at the end of (its) life, so we put them in an oven and accelerate the aging process,” Watkins said. “We can create 40 years of aging in one month.”

The small sensors Morato creates then go over to Bob Lago, the shop manager. Lago puts the sensors in packages that protect them while they are installed in a product. Once installed, Lago can look at a chart and tell by the level of resistance how much age is left on the product.

Take a motor, for example.  

“When a motor goes bad, it could cause other problems with the equipment it is hooked up to, which could be costly. So we are trying to prevent that,” Lago said. “With this technology people will be able to plan for the replacement of their motor.”

The concept also impressed the U.S. Department of energy, which recently awarded a $100,000 grant to research the use of carbon nano-tubes in sensors. The Department of Energy previously awarded the company $1.5 million to help develop the sensor.

Watkins also said he hopes to use the carbon nano-tubes, or nano-technology, to give the sensors better performance and longer life. On top of that, Watkins and his crew also hope the technology will help identify when roads will need repairing.

This would work by mixing asphalt sensors with the asphalt when a new road is being put in. A vehicle with a reader for the sensor would then be able to drive over the road and identify who put the road in, who the contractor was, and when it was installed. The reader would also be able to tell what percentage of life the road has left.

“A lot of the damage that is happening to roads you don’t see — it is going on under the surface,” Watkins said. “You want to identify problems early so they can be fixed.”

He said by doing this, the Department of Transportation could save money by replacing a road when it needs to be — and obviously not beforehand.

“The damage occurs quickly at the end of a road’s life, and if they have to do unscheduled maintenances , it is extremely expensive,” Watkins said.

For the future, Watkins said he hopes to replace bar codes and smart labels to help identify food degradation. He calls his labels “genius labels,” and said they will be the next generation of “smart labels.”

“It will not only do what a smart label will do, which is identify the product, but it will also tell you if the product is still good or not depending upon the actual conditions of the package.”

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