Washington D.C: The engineers in University of Utah have developed a new type of fiber material for a handheld scanner which can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor, a valuable advancement that could be an early-warning signal for leaks in an oil pipeline, an airliner, or for locating a terrorist's explosive.
Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible material such as gasoline, airplane fuel, oil, even a homemade bomb.
Currently, there are no small, portable chemical sensors to detect alkane fuel vapor because it is not chemically reactive. The conventional way to detect it is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab.
"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 lead researcher Ling Zang.
So Zang's team developed a type of fiber composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other.
That kind of interaction would then signal the detector that the alkane vapor is present.
Vaporsens, a University of Utah spin-off company, has designed a prototype of the handheld detector with an array of 16 sensor materials that will be able to identify a broad range of chemicals including explosives.
This new composite material will be incorporated into the sensor array to include the detection of alkanes. Vaporsens plans to introduce the device on the market in about a year and a half, says Zang, who is the company's chief science officer.
Such a small sensor device that can detect alkane vapor will benefit three main categories, oil pipelines, airplane fuel tanks and security.