Combustible materials such as oil, gasoline and airplane fuel contain alkane fuel. There are currently no portable scanners that can detect this colorless and odorless vapor.
But not for long. A team of engineers from the University of Utah created a new fiber material that can detect odorless alkane vapor. This new fiber material can be secured on a handheld scanner to look for traces of alkane fuel leaks.
The innovation can become a valuable technological advancement that can act as early warning signals for alkane leaks in an aircraft or an oil pipeline. Since alkane fuel is also a key ingredient in homemade bombs, the new fiber material can help locate explosives.
The traditional way of detecting alkane fuel vapor is through a massive, oven-like lab instrument.
"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," said Ling Zang, a science and engineer professor who led the research team.
The new fiber material involved two nanofibers that can transfer electrons to each other. Ben Bunes, who is part of the research team explained that alkane sticks in between the two nanofibers and blocks the transfer of electrons. The blockage signals the detection of the alkane vapor presence.
The team created a spin-off company named Vaporsens and designed a handheld detector prototype containing 16 sensor materials capable of identifying several chemicals.
The new fiber material will be included in the collection of sensors created by Vaporsens, which could be introduced into the market in less than two years.
A small handheld sensor can help in detecting alkane vapor in oil pipelines, wherein a leakage could end up contaminating water resources and the local environment. A small alkane sensor can detect a leakage before it can become a bigger problem.
The sensor can also detect the presence of alkane in airplane fuel tanks and warn pilots if there is a leak happening in real time. A sensor placed around the "bladders" where aircraft fuel is stored can help pilots determine where the leak is located.
Moreover, these alkane sensors can better aid security officers in buildings and airports in detecting bombs as alkane is a key ingredient in many explosives. The research was published in the ACS Sensors, an American Chemical Society journal.