Robust, simple, and easy-to-detect, color-changing hydrogen sensors warn against explosion hazard.

At NASA, hydrogen safety is a key concern for space shuttle processing. Leaks of any level must be quickly recognized and addressed due to hydrogen’s lower explosion limit. Chemochromic devices have been developed to detect hydrogen gas in several embodiments. Because hydrogen is odorless and colorless and poses an explosion hazard, there is an emerging need for sensors to quickly and accurately detect low levels of leaking hydrogen in fuel cells and other advanced energy-generating systems in which hydrogen is used as fuel.

The device incorporates a chemochromic pigment into a base polymer. The article can reversibly or irreversibly change color upon exposure to hydrogen. The irreversible pigment changes color from a light beige to a dark gray. The sensitivity of the pigment can be tailored to its application by altering its exposure to gas through the incorporation of one or more additives or polymer matrix. Furthermore, through the incorporation of insulating additives, the chemochromic sensor can operate at cryogenic temperatures as low as 78 K.

A chemochromic detector of this type can be manufactured into any feasible polymer part including injection molded plastic parts, fiber-spun textiles, or extruded tapes. The detectors are simple, inexpensive, portable, and do not require an external power source. The chemochromic detectors were installed and removed easily at the KSC launch pad without need for special expertise. These detectors may require an external monitor such as the human eye, camera, or electronic detector; however, they could be left in place, unmonitored, and examined later for color change to determine whether there had been exposure to hydrogen.

In one type of envisioned application, chemochromic detectors would be fabricated as outer layers (e.g., casings or coatings) on high-pressure hydrogen storage tanks and other components of hydrogen-handling systems to provide visible indications of hydrogen leaks caused by fatigue failures or other failures in those systems. In another type of envisioned application, chemochromic detectors of this type could be optoelectronically instrumented for monitoring to provide measured digital indications of color changes indicative of the presence of hydrogen.

This work was done by Luke Roberson, Janine Captain, Martha Williams, Trent Smith, and LaNetra Tate of Kennedy Space Center; and Ali Raissi, Nahid Mohajeri, Nazim Muradov, and Gary Bokerman of Florida Solar Energy Center. For additional information, contact the Kennedy Space Center Innovative Partnerships Program Office at (321) 861-7158. KSC-13088