Non-contact Temperature Sensors

Virtually any mass above absolute zero temperature emits electromagnetic radiation (photons, or light) as a function of that temperature. This basic fact makes possible the measurement of temperature by analyzing the light emitted by an object. The Stefan-Boltzmann Law of radiated energy quantifies this fact, declaring that the rate of heat lost by radiant emission from a hot object is proportional to the fourth power of the absolute temperature:

Non-contact Temperature Sensors formula


dQ/dt = Radiant heat loss rate (watts)
e = Emissivity factor (unitless)
σ = Stefan-Boltzmann constant (5.67 × 10−8 W/m2·K4)
A = Surface area (square meters)
T = Absolute temperature (Kelvin)

The primary advantage of non-contact thermometry (or pyrometry as high-temperature measurement is often referred) is rather obvious: with no need to place a sensor in direct contact with the process, a wide variety of temperature measurements may be made that are either impractical or impossible to make using any other technology.

A major disadvantage of non-contact thermometry is that it only reveals the surface temperature of an object. Sensing the thermal radiation emanated from a pipe, for instance, only tells you the surface temperature of that pipe and not the true temperature of the fluid within the pipe. Another example is when doctors use non-contact thermometry to assess irregularities in body temperature: what they detect is just skin temperature. While it may be true that “hot spots” beneath the surface of an object may be detectable this way, it is only because the surface temperature of that object differs as a consequence of the hot spot(s) beneath. If a hotter-than-normal region inside of an object fails to transfer enough thermal energy to the surface to manifest as a hotter surface temperature, that region will be invisible to non-contact thermometry.

It may surprise some readers to discover that non-contact pyrometry is nearly as old as thermocouple technology, the first non-contact pyrometer being constructed in 1892.

Concentrating Pyrometers

A time-honored design for non-contact pyrometers is to concentrate incident light from the surface of a heated object onto a small temperature-sensing element. A rise in temperature at the sensor reveals the intensity of the infrared optical energy falling upon it, which as discussed previously is a function of the target object’s surface temperature (absolute temperature to the fourth power):

non-contact pyrometer principle

The fourth-power characteristic of Stefan-Boltzmann’s law means that a doubling of absolute temperature at the hot object results in sixteen times as much radiant energy falling on the sensor, and therefore a sixteen-fold increase in the sensor’s temperature rise over ambient. A tripling of target temperature (absolute) yields eighty one times as much radiant energy, and therefore an 81- fold increase in sensor temperature rise. This extreme nonlinearity limits the practical application of non-contact pyrometry to relatively narrow ranges of target temperature wherever good accuracy is required.

Thermocouples were the first type of sensor used in non-contact pyrometers, and they still find application in modern versions of the same technology. Since the sensor does not become nearly as hot as the target object, the output of any single thermocouple junction at the sensor area will be quite small. For this reason, instrument manufacturers often employ a series-connected array of thermocouples called a thermopile to generate a stronger electrical signal.

The basic concept of a thermopile is to connect multiple thermocouple junctions in series so their voltages will add:

multiple thermocouple in series

Examining the polarity marks of each junction (type E thermocouple wires are assumed in this example: chromel and constantan), we see that all the “hot” junctions’ voltages aid each other, as do all the “cold” junctions’ voltages. Like all thermocouple circuits, though, the each “cold” junction voltage opposes each the “hot” junction voltage. The example thermopile shown in this diagram, with four hot junctions and four cold junctions, will generate four times the potential difference that a single type E thermocouple hot/cold junction pair would generate, assuming all the hot junctions are at the same temperature and all the cold junctions are at the same temperature.

When used as the detector for a non-contact pyrometer, the thermopile is oriented so all the concentrated light falls on the hot junctions (the “focal point” where the light focuses to a small spot), while the cold junctions face away from the focal point to a region of ambient temperature. Thus, the thermopile acts like a multiplied thermocouple, generating more voltage than a single thermocouple junction could under the same temperature conditions.

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