Combustible substances, such as gasoline, oil, airplane fuel and even homemade bombs, all contain a common ingredient: alkane fuel. Being colorless, odorless and chemically unreactive, this vapor eludes detection in most cases, making it all the more hazardous. At present, there are no portable scanning devices available that can effectively discern fuel leaks.
As part of a new research, scientists from the University of Utah have created a new fiber material that can sniff out even minute traces of the vaporized alkane fuel. The newly-developed material, which can be easily fitted into a handheld scanner, could expedite the process of detecting leaks, as in case of an airliner, an oil pipeline, or an explosive.
The breakthrough comes at a time when there are no portable chemical sensors that can swiftly identify alkane fuel vapors. Such detections currently require large, oven-shaped laboratory equipment that are not at all feasible for use in emergency situations. Speaking about these bulky scanners, Ling Zang, a materials science and engineering professor at the university and the study’s leader, said:
It’s not mobile and very heavy. There’s no way it can be used in the field. Imagine trying to detect the leak from a gas valve or on the pipelines. You ought to have something portable.
Recently published in the ACS Sensors journal by the American Chemical Society, the research outlines the technique adopted by the scientists to design the versatile fiber composite. Central to the technology, according to the team, are two nanofibers that transfer electrons between each other. Ben Bunes, a research fellow at the university’s Materials Science and Engineering department, explained:
These are two materials that interact well together by having electrons transferring from one to another. When an alkane is present, it sticks in between the two materials, blocking the electron transfer between the two nanofibers.
Such interactions, as the researchers point out, help detect the presence of alkane fuel vapor. Vaporsens, a start-up by the University of Utah engineers, has already developed a functional prototype of the handheld scanner, containing 16 different sensor materials that can recognize a wide variety of chemicals, including homemade explosives. Additionally, the new fiber-based sensor will be able to efficiently detect alkanes.
According to the scientists, the device could prove especially helpful in detecting alkane vapor in three different cases: leaks from oil pipelines, aircraft fuel tanks as well as explosives. Oil leaks, which often have devastating effects on the local environment and water resources, can be discerned only through massive pressure drop. When placed along the leaking pipeline, the handheld sensor could easily identify small leaks, stopping them before they become bigger.
In case of aircraft, the fuel is stored inside removable chambers, built using flexible fabric. When there is a leak, the dyed fuel starts seeping through the chambers, and can be detected only when the tanks are removed for inspection. Zang’s newly-designed scanner, when placed in the vicinity of the fuel chamber, could notify the pilot about a leak in real time.
The portable scanning device could also be used to uncover explosives, like bombs, in airports. As Zang points out, the contraption will be available commercially within the next 18 months.
Source: University of Utah