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Flexible Cryogenic Temperature and Liquid-Level Probes

These probes can be readily customized.

Lightweight, flexible probes have been developed for measuring temperatures at multiple locations in tanks that contain possibly pressurized cryogenic fluids. If the fluid in a given tank is subcritical (that is, if it consists of a liquid and its vapor), then in one of two modes of operation, the temperature measurements made by a probe of this type can be used to deduce the approximate level of the liquid. The temperature sensors are silicon diodes located at intervals along a probe. If the probe is to be used to measure a temperature gradient along a given axis in the tank, then the probe must be mounted along that axis. In the temperature-measurement mode, a constant small electric current is applied to each diode and the voltage across the diode — a known function of the current and temperature — is measured as an indication of its temperature. For the purpose of this measurement, “small electric current” signifies a current that is not large enough to cause a significant increase in the measured temperature. More specifically, the probe design calls for a current of 10 µA, which, in the cryogenic temperature range of interest, generates heat at a rate of only about 0.01 mW per diode.

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Diodes and Their Lead Wires are embedded in a polyimide strip at locations from which temperature measurements are desired.
In the liquid-level-sensing mode, one applies a larger current (30 mA) to each diode so as to heat each diode appreciably (with a power of about 36 mW in the temperature range of interest). Because the liquid cools the diode faster than does the vapor, the temperature of the diode is less when the diode is immersed in the liquid than when it is above the surface of the liquid. Thus, the temperature (voltage) reading from each diode can be used to determine whether the liquid level is above or below the diode, and one can deduce that the liquid level lies between two adjacent diodes, the lower one of which reads a significantly lower temperature.

The aforementioned techniques for measuring temperature and deducing liquid level are not new. What is new here are the designs of the probes and of associated external electronic circuitry. In each probe, the diodes and the lead wires are embedded in a strong, lightweight, flexible polyimide strip. Each probe is constructed as an integral unit that includes a multipin input/output plug or socket for solderless connection of the lead wires to the external circuitry. The polyimide strip includes mounting tabs with holes that can accommodate rivets, screws, or other fasteners. Alternatively, a probe can be mounted by use of an epoxy. A probe can be manufactured to almost any length or width, and the diodes can be embedded at almost any desired location along and across the polyimide strip.

In designing a probe for a specific application, one seeks a compromise between (1) minimizing the number of diodes in order to minimize the complexity of input/output connections and external electronic circuitry while (2) using enough diodes to obtain the required precision. Optionally, to minimize spurious heating of the cryogenic fluid, the external circuitry can be designed to apply power to the probe only during brief measurement intervals. Assuming that the external circuitry is maintained at a steady temperature, a power-on interval of only a few seconds is sufficient to obtain accurate data on temperatures and/or the height of the liquid/ vapor interface.

This work was done by Mark Haberbusch of Sierra Lobo, Inc., for Stennis Space Center.

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Sierra Lobo, Inc.

11401 Hoover Road Milan, Ohio 44846

Refer to SSC-00191, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.