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Home > News > High-performance, flexible nanotechnology hydrogen sensors

October 10th, 2007

High-performance, flexible nanotechnology hydrogen sensors

In the (hopefully not too distant) future hydrogen-based economy, hydrogen (H2) sensors will be a critical component for safety and widely needed. For example, H2 sensors will detect leaks from hydrogen-powered cars and fueling stations long before the gas becomes an explosive hazard. But even today a wide range of potential applications for H2 sensors exists, such as sensing H2 buildups in lead acid storage cells found in most vehicles; detecting H2 leaks during petrochemical applications where high pressure H2 is used; detecting impending transformer failure in electric power plants; or monitoring H2 buildup in radioactive waste tanks and in plutonium reprocessing. Another example is the Space Shuttle which uses a combination of hydrogen and oxygen as fuel for its main engines. Any hydrogen leak could potentially result in a hydrogen fire, which is invisible to the naked eye. Today, the leakage of hydrogen caused by a tiny pinhole in the pipe of a Space Shuttle could not be easily detected by individual rigid detectors because the locations of pinholes are not predetermined. The problem with most current hydrogen sensor designs is that they are built on rigid substrates, which cannot be bent, and therefore, their applications might be limited due to the mechanical rigidity. In addition, they use expensive, pure palladium. A new type of sensors is bendy and use single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) to improve efficiency and reduce cost. In the example of the space shuttle, laminating a dense array of flexible sensors on the whole surface of a pipe can detect any leakage of hydrogen prior to diffusion and alert control units to remedy the malfunction. This use of large-area sensory skins would not significantly increase the overall weight of the Shuttle due to the lightweight nature associated with these flexible sensors. The development of these hydrogen sensors is just another step that will help us ensure economical, environmental and societal safety in using hydrogen as the main fuel source in tomorrow's society.


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