An Electronic Nose for Sniffing Out Explosive Materials and Toxic Gases
Kelsey Jones posted on May 10, 2016 |
Fiber composite makes handheld alkane sensors possible.
An organic nanofiber net. (Image courtesy of Vaporsens.)
An organic nanofiber net. (Image courtesy of Vaporsens.)
Alkane fuel—a major component of oil, gasoline, and other fuels—is colourless, odourless, and not chemically reactive, making it difficult to detect.

Traditional detection methods use a large, heavy laboratory equipment, but handheld detectors may soon be possible thanks to a new fiber composite.

The composite consists of a net of nanofibers that functions like the olfactory cilia of a dog’s nose, catching chemical molecules from the air. An alkane molecule will stick between the fibers, blocking the transfer of electrons between them and thereby signaling the presence of alkane vapors.

Sensors using this composite have a number of applications, including detecting pipeline leaks, airplane fuel leaks and in security systems.

Preventing Pipeline Leaks

Without early detection, leaks from pipelines can contaminate the local environment as well as water sources. Conventionally, pipeline leaks can only be detected when they are large enough to cause a pressure drop in the pipe. Mounting these sensors along pipelines would enable early detection of alkane vapours, preventing spills such as last year’s Nexen oil spill in Northern Alberta, which was initially undetected by the factory’s failsafe system.

Securing Airplane Fuel Tanks

Currently, airplane fuel leaks can only be detected visually by looking for dyed fuel seeping from flexible fabric bladders in the plane. Positioning these sensors around the bladders could inform pilots of leaks in real time, thus avoiding alarming emergency landings, fires and power shortages due to fuel loss. 

Detecting IEDs

Alkane fuel, in the form of fuel oils such as diesel, is also the major component in improvised explosives, like the bomb used in the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995. Integrating the sensor into security systems could prevent such attacks in future.

Vaporsens, the company which created the nanofiber-based sensor, plans to release the device to market in late 2017. 

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