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Detection of Flammable Gases

R. C. Naik and R. D. Shroff


United Phosphorus Limited,
Chemo Electronic Laboratory,
Gujarat, India- 396 195
E-mail: uplnahuli@sify.com

Abstract
Hydrocarbons like LPG, CNG etc., which are used as fuel gases and also vapours of
many solvents, which are used in various processes in chemical plants, and factories can
pose an explosion and fire hazard. Hence the detection and measurement of their
concentration at places where they are likely to occur is a must to avoid gas cloud explosion.
This article reviews the various chemical and electronic devices for the detection of
flammable gases. It also describes the various types of sensors used on electronic
instruments for detecting the flammable gases.
1. Introduction
Many of the chemicals used or produced in the chemical factories are combustible and
their vapour in the air can form combustible mixtures causing the possibility of explosion
when ignited. The hydrocarbons like LPG, CNG etc., which are used as fuel gases in chemical
plants, factories and in domestic kitchens, are all combustible. When they leak, they can
form explosive mixtures. Hence whenever these flammable gases/ vapours are used, it is
necessary to monitor the working area for the presence of these gases. Some of these
combustible gases like CO, Hydrazine, and Benzene are also highly toxic with very low
threshold limit value (TLV) of exposure. Hence they have to be detected at a very low
concentration levels much before they form a combustible mixture. The two main categories
of detection devices, which can be directly used in the field for sensing these gases, are
the chemical detectors and the electronic instruments.
Till recently chemical detector tubes were not manufactured in India. They had to be imported
at exorbitant cost. There were also not many indigenous manufacturers of electronic instruments
in India. A few who manufactured them were totally dependent on imported sensors.
Chemo Electronic laboratory has developed for the first time in India the chemical
detector tubes for several of the combustible gases and vapours and also for toxic gases.
They have also developed the full range of electronic instruments for various applications.
The sensors used in these instruments include (1) Pellistors which is the sensor of choice
for the combustible gases (2) Electrochemical sensor suitable for many toxic gases and
combustible gases (3) Solid state sensors, which can detect many of the toxic and combustible
gases at concentration as low as parts per million to as high as 100% v/v. (4) other sensors
like thermal conductivity detector and photo ionisation detector etc. Among these sensors
Chemo Electronic Laboratory has also indigenously developed various type of Pellistors,
electrochemical sensors for toxic and combustible gases and also thermal conductivity
detectors. They are the only sensor manufacturers in India.
The present article gives an overview of the sensors and the instruments, for the
detection of combustible gases and what Chemo Electronic Laboratory has done.
150 Proceedings of National Symposium on Industrial and Fire Safety – 2006

2. Chemical Detector Tube


One of the simplest and oldest devices for detecting combustible gases is the socalled
short-term detector tube popularly known as Drager tubes named after the manufacturer.
The first detector tube was made for the detection of CO more than PDF created with
150 years ago. Since then detector tubes for more than 200 toxic gases and chemical vapors,
many of which are also combustible have been developed. Presently detector tubes for
combustible gases like Hexane, General Hydrocarbon, Benzene, Toluene etc are available.
The operating principle of the detector tube is the chemical reaction of the target gas
with the sensing chemical of the filling preparation of the tube. This reaction leads to a
colour change of the filling chemicals and the resulting colored stain length is related to
the concentration of target gas present in the sample air, drawn through the tube.

Fig. 1. Different parts of a short-term detector tube


Figure-1 shows a typical chemical detector tube and its different parts. For making
measurements both ends of the tubes are to be cut and inserted into the inlet of a piston
and barrel type sample draw pump of 100-ml capacity. When the sample air is drawn through
the tube by using the pump, (Figure-2) the length of the coloured stain developed is directly
proportional to the flammable gas concentration. Generally the tubes are calibrated for
a volume of 100-ml air sample, though occasionally 50 ml or multiples of 100-ml air is
used. Detector tube along with the sample draw pump forms the detector tube system.
Hence for accurate measurement, the detector tubes are to be used along with the pump
recommended by the manufacturer. Uniphos detector tubes for more than 60 toxic and
combustible gases are now available in the market.

Fig. 2. Short-term detector tube along with Air Sampling pump

3. Electronic Instruments
While detector tubes make on the spot measurements of gases present in the
environment at the time of measurement, they are not suitable for continuous measurement
Detection of Flammable Gases 151

of gas concentration. For this purpose electronic instruments are best suited. These
electronic instruments use a sensor, which forms the heart of the instrument. When the
sensor encounters the combustible gas it causes some physical or chemical change in the
sensor, which is proportional to the gas concentration. This change is converted into a
current or voltage signal by the signal processing circuit in the instrument and related
to the gas concentration and is displayed on a digital display. Figure-3 shows the schematic
diagram of a typical electronic instrument. In the following sections a brief description
of the sensors is given followed by a method.

Fig. 3. The schematic diagram of portable monitor


3.1 Sensors used in Uniphos Electronic Instruments
The sensor, which is the vital part of any electronic gas detection instrument, is generally
one of the following.
1. Pellistor
1. TCD
2. Solid -state sensor
3. IR sensor
4. PID
3.1.1 Pellistor
For the detection and determination of flammable gas concentration, pellistor can be
considered as a detector of choice. It can be thought of as a micro-calorimetric device where
the amount of heat generated when a combustible gas is oxidized on an alumina bead is
measured and is related to the combustible gas concentration. A typical pellistor consists
of two matched elements viz. detector and compensator, forming the two arms of a bridge
circuit. The amount of heat generated and the consequent rise in temperature of the detector
bead is a measure of gas concentration. The compensator bead serves to compensate for
the change in resistance of the platinum thermometer due to causes other than the
combustion of flammable gas on the detector bead. Pellistors are suitable for the
measurement of many of the combustible gases where the decomposition products are
volatile and do not deposit on the bead. However pellistors are susceptible for poisoning
temporarily or permanently by silicone and sulphur compounds etc.
152 Proceedings of National Symposium on Industrial and Fire Safety – 2006

3.1.2 Thermal Conductivity Detector (TCD)


Thermal conductivity detectors exploit the difference between the thermal conductivity
of the target gas and a reference gas, which can be pure air, Hydrogen, Helium etc. Two
similar sensors form two arms of a whetstone bridge. The bridge is first balanced with
the reference gas flowing over both the sensors. When the sample gas having a different
thermal conductivity compared to the reference gas is passed over the measuring cell an
out of balance voltage is generated which is directly proportional to the gas concentration.
These sensors can be used for the measurement of methane and other combustible gases
in a measuring range of 1% to 100% V/V.
3.1.3 Solid State Sensor
There are many semiconducting materials like Tin oxide, Zinc oxide etc. whose
resistance change when exposed to toxic gases or vapours. This property can be utilized
for the detection of gases by fabricating sensors using these materials. The sensors have
to be kept at higher operating temperature in the range of 300 to 500 degree centigrade.
A typical popular solid-state sensor is a thick film of SnO2 or other suitable material printed
on an alumina substrate with conducting pads at both the ends for electrical connection.
On the other side of the substrate a suitable resistor element is printed for heating the
sensing material. Electronic instruments for the detection of methane, LPG, CNG etc. in
a very low concentration range viz. ppm level, are possible using solid-state sensors.
3.1.4 Infrared Detector (IR)
Most of the polyatomic molecules including diatomic molecules have strong adsorption
bands in the infrared. They can be used as fingerprints of the molecules for their detection
and determination. Recently nondispersive infrared (NDIR) analyzer using a pyroelectric
detector has become popular for industrial application.
The Infrared radiation from the source is directed through the sample chamber towards
the detector. The detector, generally a pyroelectric detector is fitted with an optical filter
which absorbs all the wavelengths except the wavelength selected which the gas molecules
can absorb.(e.g. 3.4 m for Methane). Other gas molecules in the cell do not absorb this
wavelength, and do not affect the amount of light reaching the detector. Generally two
IR detectors are used. The filter fitted to the active detector is transparent to the
fundamental absorption band of the target gas. The output intensity from the active detector
is then reduced as the optical radiation is attenuated on passing through the target gas.
The second reference detector is made insensitive to this change by using a different filter.
By taking the ratio of the two detector signals, the user can discriminate the signal reduction
due to the target gas, from that due to ambient and other physical variations. NDIR detectors
are particularly suitable for the measurement of Hydrocarbons and CO2 in the percentage
(0.1% to 20%) range of measurement.
3.1.5 Photoionisation Detector (PID)
The photoionisation detector utilizes UV light to ionise gas molecules and is commonly
employed for the detection of volatile organic compounds. Many of the volatile organic
compounds have ionisation potential in the range of 8 – 10 electron volts, which is much
lower than the ionisation potential of O2 and N2 the main atmospheric constituents. When
these VOC molecules are present even at very low concentration, in air, the ionisation
Detection of Flammable Gases 153

current which results when they are irradiated with U.V. light from a PID lamp can be
measured to detect these VOC molecules and to determine their concentration.
This technique lacks specificity though it is extremely sensitive. Any molecule having
ionisation potential lower than the energy of UV light transmitted by the lamp is ionised
and leads to ionisation current. All such molecules contribute to the ionisation current.
Hence this method cannot determine the individual concentration when a mixture of VOC
is present in the air. Yet this sensor is very useful for the detection of many of the VOC
when a single gas is present and its identity is known.
3.2 Uniphos Instruments
Chemo Electronic laboratory has developed a variety of instruments using one or the
other of the sensors described earlier. The instruments include (1) Portable or table top
models for field application (2) Personal / Hand held or pocket size instruments with user
settable alarms for protecting the workers from hazards of toxic / combustible gas exposure
(3) Various types of fixed monitoring systems for area monitoring, consisting of a controller,
which is kept in the control room and a transmitter, which contains the sensor head, kept
in the area where gas concentration measurement is necessary.
4. Conclusion
Among the various instruments and devices available for the detection of combustible
gases, the user has to make the choice. The choice is dictated by the sample volume,
frequency of measurement, concentration range, location and presence of other possible
interfering gases present at the site of measurement.
If the sample is very small, and the measurement is occasional the detector tubes are
suitable and it is cost effective.
For the purpose of leak detection from pipelines, storage tanks etc. a portable instrument
with a sampling probe which can detect even at parts per million level has been found
to be ideal. The portable instruments are possible either using a Photo Ionization Detector
(PID) or a Solid State Sensor. However, as PIDs are very costly, flammable gas leak detectors
generally use Solid State Sensors. In some applications, it is necessary to detect combustible
gases in the concentration range of 0-100% v/v. For such applications it is necessary that,
the instrument has a solid-state sensor for detecting at ppm level, a pellistor to detect
between the lower and upper explosive limit of detection (LEL – UEL) and a TCD which
works in the range of 1 – 100% v/v.
Nondispersive Infrared (NDIR) absorption based instruments are also used for the
detection of hydrocarbons. They are suitable in the range of 1- 100% v/v.

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