Temperature Measurement Using Thermocouples Industry Technology Paper

The Basics of Temperature Measurement Using Thermocouples

Points of Consideration When Using Thermocouples to Measure  Temperature

Since accuracy will ultimately play a significant role in selecting a sensor type, we should be familiar with potential sources of error when making temperature measurements with thermocouples. Some of these considerations may steer us from one T/C type to another, or perhaps to another sensor type, like RTD for example.

Thermocouple (T/C)

Sensor Inaccuracy

Some manufacturers of thermocouple sensors may have their own accuracy designations different from the standard designation described below, and those should always be consulted first, as they sometimes offer better than standard performance. But by the IEC 584-2 standard, thermocouple sensors are divided into three accuracy classes: Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3. By this standard, two tolerance values apply for a given temperature and thermocouple type: a fixed value, and a calculated value based on the sensor temperature. The larger of these two values is normally taken as the sensor tolerance.

Thermocouple (T/C) Sensor Non-Linearity

The non-linearity of the thermocouple output itself can vary up to several percent or more over the full temperature range of a T/C type. The mathematical relationship between sensor temperature and output voltage is modeled via a complex polynomial to the 5th through 9th order depending on the T/C type. Some transmitters will take special measures to adjust their output response for these non-linearities and make their outputs linear with the input temperature range. Other applications are not concerned with linearizing the transmitter’s output response relative to the sensor temperature and their response will instead be linear with the thermoelectric voltage signal of the sensor. In many cases, a given thermocouple will be nearly linear over a smaller range of its application temperature and some non-linearity will be acceptable without applying special linearizing methods. Likewise, some low cost transmitters will use analog methods to shift the output to adjust for this non-linearity and this generally works best over smaller or truncated portions of the sensor range. Some modern digital instruments will actually store thermoelectric breakpoint tables in memory to accomplish multi-segment linearization of a T/C range and return the corresponding temperature for a given voltage measurement. Depending on your application, the lack of linearization can be a significant source of error if you fail to account for it.

Thermocouple (T/C) Sensor Sensitivity

As mentioned earlier, we noted that any conductor subject to a thermal gradient along a dimension will generate a voltage difference along that same path and this is known as the Seebeck effect. Different materials will exhibit different magnitudes of thermal emf related to the difference in temperature. Combining two different materials and joining them at one end allows us to complete a circuit, build the thermocouple, and actually measure the relative voltage. The relative sensitivity of the thermocouple refers to its Seebeck coefficient, which is simply a measure of its incremental change in thermocouple voltage corresponding to an incremental change in temperature (i.e. dV/dT in mV/°C or uV/°C). This is essentially the slope of the thermocouple function (voltage versus temperature) at a selected temperature. It’s important to note that just as a thermocouple varies its linearity over temperature, its relative sensitivity is also temperature dependent. That is, some thermocouples will be more or less sensitive for smaller portions of their application temperature range. Table 1 gave a nominal sensitivity figure for the thermocouple over its entire application range to help differentiate the thermocouples by sensitivity, but over smaller ranges, this figure can vary considerably. T/C’s that have lower sensitivity will have lower resolution. These are generally used at higher temperatures where the need to resolve a given temperature to a high degree of accuracy is not a requirement. Likewise, if you need to resolve temperature to a fraction of a degree, you would select a T/C with higher sensitivity, and a corresponding higher resolution.

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