Large cryogenic liquid hydrogen tanks are composed of inner and outer shells. The outer shell is exposed to the ambient environment while the inner shell holds the liquid hydrogen. The region between these two shells is evacuated and typically filled with a powder-like insulation to minimize radiative coupling between the two shells. A technique was developed for detecting the presence of an air leak from the outside environment into this evacuated region. These tanks are roughly 70 ft (≈21 m) in diameter (outer shell) and the inner shell is roughly 62 ft (≈19 m) in diameter, so the evacuated region is about 4 ft (≈1 m) wide.
A small leak’s primary effect is to increase the boil-off of the tank. It was preferable to install a more accurate fill level sensor than to implement a boil-off meter. The fill level sensor would be composed of an accurate pair of pressure transducers that would essentially weigh the remaining liquid hydrogen. This upgrade, allowing boil-off data to be obtained weekly instead of over several months, is ongoing, and will then provide a relatively rapid indication of the presence of a leak.
This work was done by Robert Youngquist, Stanley Starr, and Mark Nurge of Kennedy Space Center. KSC-13211