Swedish researchers develop ultra-fast hydrogen leak detector

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While green transport proponents are busting a gut to develop components and chemistry for sustainable batteries that won’t wreak havoc through materials extraction, the case for hydrogen-powered cars may have made a big leap forward thanks to researchers in Sweden.

A team at Gothenburg’s Chalmers University of Technology has developed a sensor that could overcome one of the biggest obstacles to hydrogen fuel cell transport – the hugely inflammable nature of the gas when combined with oxygen.

Hydrogen’s capacity to power transport, with water as the only emission, is unquestioned but just 4% of the gas mixed with air creates the highly flammable oxyhydrogen gas – knall gas – effectively making hydrogen vehicles high-speed explosive devices.

As a result, detection systems that warn of the smallest hydrogen leaks almost immediately would be required to make hydrogen-powered transport feasible.

Plastic fantastic

The Chalmers team – which has published its research in Nature Materials – has come up with a sensor that can detect 0.1% hydrogen in air in one second, a benchmark never previously attained.

The scientists have developed an optimal nanosensor whose ability to detect the plasmon that occurs during a hydrogen leak is enhanced by the plastic shield surrounding the piece of kit. A plasmon occurs when metal nanoparticles in the sensor are illuminated and capture visible light.

The Swedish team discovered the plastic shield they developed to encase their sensor and protect it from other environmental elements – and to ensure it would not have to be constantly recalibrated – also accelerated uptake of hydrogen gas molecules into the sensor’s metal particles.

Experimenting with the optimal balance of plastic and sensor enabled the scientists to maximize the responsiveness and sensitivity of the sensor.

“We have not only developed the world’s fastest hydrogen sensor,” Ferry Nugroho, a researcher at the department of physics at Chalmers told the university website, “but also a sensor that is stable over time and does not deactivate. Unlike today’s hydrogen sensors, our solution does not need to be recalibrated as often, as it is protected by the plastic.”