Autonomous Cryogenic Leak Detector for Improving Launch Site Operations

Virtually all storage tanks of hydrogen and other flammable gases could use this sensor technology.

NASA, military, and commercial satellite users need launch services that are highly reliable, less complex, easier to test, and cost effective. This project has developed a tapered optical fiber sensor for detecting hydrogen. The invention involves incorporating chemical indicators on the tapered end of an optical fiber using organically modified silicate nanomaterials.

The Hazardous Gas Detection Lab (HGDL) at Kennedy Space Center is involved in the design and development of instrumentation that can detect and qualify various mission-critical chemicals. Historically, hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, oxygen, and argon are the first five gases of HGDL focus. The use of these cryogenic fluids in the area of propulsion offers challenges. Due to their extreme low temperatures, these fluids induce contraction of the materials they contact, a potential cause of leakage. Among them, hydrogen is of particular concern.

Small sensors are needed in multiple locations without adding to the structural weight. The most vulnerable parts of the engine are the connection flanges on the transfer lines, which have to support cycles of large thermal amplitude. The thermal protection of the engine provides a closed area, increasing the likelihood of an explosive atmosphere. Thus, even a small leak represents an unacceptable hazardous condition during loading operations, in flight, or after an aborted launch.

Tapered fibers were first fabricated from 1/1.3-mm core/cladding (silica/plastic) optical fibers. Typically a 1-ft (≈30- cm) section of the 1-mm fiber is cut from the bundle and marked with a pen into five 2-¼-in. (≈5.7-cm) sections. A propane torch is applied at every alternate mark to burn the jacket and soften the glass core. While the core is softening, the two ends of the fiber are pulled apart slowly to create fine tapers of ¼- to ½-in. (≈6- to 12-mm) long on the 1-mm optical fiber. Following this, the non-tapered ends of the fibers are polished to a 0.3-micron finish. Then these fibers were coated with indicators sensitive to hydrogen.

The tapered hydrogen detection system with its unique flexibility is the only system that can be placed in many locations inside the vehicles and detect the exact location of leaks, saving millions of dollars for launch vehicle industries.

This work was done by Kisholoy Goswami of Innosense LLC for Kennedy Space Center. KSC-13436

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