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University of Utah engineers develop new material to sniff out leaks in oil pipelines

University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang holds up a prototype of the new handheld leak detector
University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang holds up a prototype of the new handheld leak detector

Engineers from the University of Utah (UoU) in the US have developed a new type of fibre material for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapour.

The discovery is 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.

The research team is led by UoU materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang, who is also a faculty member with the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) economic development initiative.

Currently, there are no small, portable chemical sensors to detect vapours from alkane fuel – a key ingredient in many combustible materials – as it is not chemically reactive, and thus the conventional way to detect it is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab.

“It’s not mobile and very heavy,” Zang said of the larger instrument. “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.”

Zang’s team developed a type of fibre composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other.

“These are two materials that interact well together by having electrons transferring from one to another,” said Ben Bunes, a postdoctoral fellow in the UoU’s materials science and engineering department.

Bunes explained that when an alkane is present, it sticks in between the two materials, blocking the electron transfer between the two nanofibers, which would then signal the detector that the alkane vapour is present.

Vaporsens, a UoU spinoff 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.

The 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, said Zang, who is the company’s chief science officer.

Such a small sensor device that can detect alkane vapour will benefit oil pipelines, where it can detect much smaller leaks than currently possible, thus preventing them from getting larger, in addition to airplane fuel tanks and security services in the form of sniffing out potential explosives.

The research was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, National Science Foundation, and NASA.

The lead author of the research paper, published in the American Chemical Society’s journal ACS Sensors, is UoU materials science and engineering doctoral student Chen Wang, with Bunes as the co-author.

University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang holds up a prototype of the new handheld leak detector