NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has developed a unique apparatus ideal for use in nondestructive testing (NDT) of hermetic seals of containers or instrumentation. The device is capable of detecting both large and small leaks and can be calibrated to characterize the relative leak rate. Its simple design does not require specialized gases for pressurization and detection, and eliminates the need for expensive instrumentation such as a mass spectrometer to analyze leaks and achieve high sensitivity. Low in cost and simple to manufacture, the patent-pending technology is ideal for use in many industries, from aerospace applications to food packaging and commercial goods.

A hermetically sealed item is placed in the leak detection system chamber and the device is activated while the resulting pressure is monitored by a data collection system. Any large leak present is immediately indicated by the data system pressure response. For very small leaks, the system monitors the leak rate over time and can vary set points to greatly speed the leak rate determination. The system is sensitive enough to detect a container leak of 10- 6 cc/min within 15 minutes. The leak detection system chamber can be of any size or shape to accommodate any type of sealed object.

The technology offers a highly sensitive method of detecting leaks in hermetic seals (i.e., airtight seals) that is more streamlined and lower in cost than other available methods with similar sensitivity. The most accurate traditional method involves pressurizing the hermetic seal device with helium, placing the device in a vacuum bell jar, and using a mass spectrometer to determine if any of the helium leaks from inside the device. This process is expensive, time-consuming, and complicated. By contrast, Marshall’s innovation uses very few parts and does not require any specialized equipment or pressurized gasses, minimizing the required maintenance and overall cost of operation.

While mass spectrometry offers highly sensitive detection, the technology is relatively expensive. Less expensive methods do not offer the level of sensitivity needed for applications such as automotive components, pharmaceuticals, or consumer goods packaging. The subject technology provides a solution to this sensitivity/price gap by offering high sensitivity at a significantly lower cost, as demonstrated by testing on the Space Shuttle solid rocket booster pressure sensors.

Applications include aerospace, particularly for sensors and equipment used in harsh environments that require hermetic seals; automotive components; electronic equipment such as semiconductors, thermostats, switches, and optical devices; consumer goods packaging (food, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, etc.); and military systems in harsh environments and highly explosive areas.

NASA is actively seeking licensees to commercialize this technology. Please contact Sammy A. Nabors at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to initiate licensing discussions. Follow this link for more information: .

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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