Hydrogen fluoride (HF) is a primary evolved combustion product of fluorinated and perfluorinated hydrocarbons. HF is produced during combustion by the presence of impurities and hydrogen-containing polymers including polyimides. This effect is especially dangerous in closed occupied volumes like spacecraft and submarines. In these systems, combinations of perfluorinated hydrocarbons and polyimides are used for insulating wiring. HF is both highly toxic and short-lived in closed environments due to its reactivity. The high reactivity also makes HF sampling problematic.

An infrared optical sensor can detect promptly evolving HF with minimal sampling requirements, while providing both high sensitivity and high specificity. A rugged optical path length enhancement architecture enables both high HF sensitivity and rapid environmental sampling with minimal gaseous contact with the low-reactivity sensor surfaces. The inert optical sample cell, combined with infrared semiconductor lasers, is joined with an analog and digital electronic control architecture that allows for ruggedness and compactness. The combination provides both portability and battery operation on a simple camcorder battery for up to eight hours.

Optical detection of gaseous HF is confounded by the need for rapid sampling with minimal contact between the sensor and the environmental sample. A sensor is required that must simultaneously provide the required sub-parts-per-million detection limits, but with the high specificity and selectivity expected of optical absorption techniques. It should also be rugged and compact for compatibility with operation onboard spacecraft and submarines.

A new optical cell has been developed for which environmental sampling is accomplished by simply traversing the few-mmthick cell walls into an open volume where the measurement is made. A small, low-power fan or vacuum pump may be used to push or pull the gaseous sample into the sample volume for a response time of a few seconds. The optical cell simultaneously provides for an enhanced optical interaction path length between the environmental sample and the infrared laser. Further, the optical cell itself is comprised of inert materials that render it immune to attack by HF. In some cases, the sensor may be configured so that the optoelectronic devices themselves are protected and isolated from HF by the optical cell. The optical sample cell is combined with custom-developed analog and digital control electronics that provide rugged, compact operation on a platform that can run on a camcorder battery.

The sensor is inert with respect to acidic gases like HF, while providing the required sensitivity, selectivity, and response time. Certain types of combustion events evolve copious amounts of HF, very little of other gases typically associated with combustion (e.g., carbon monoxide), and very low levels of aerosols and particulates (which confound traditional smoke detectors). The new sensor platform could warn occupants early enough to take the necessary countermeasures.

This work was done by Jeffrey Pilgrim and Paula Gonzales of Vista Photonics, Inc. for Glenn Research Center.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steven Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. LEW-18892-1