Zhili Xiao, a physicist at Northern Illinois University, has been thinking about how to minimize the dangers of the hydrogen economy. Even though automakers are working on designing safer hydrogen storage tanks, Xiao and his team have developed tiny sensors that can detect hydrogen when those tanks inevitably leak. This is important, because when the hydrogen concentration of a gas is 4 percent, it can ignite easily if a spark is present, Xiao told the Suburban Chicago News.
"You have an electric circuit powering everything in your car, so if you have a tiny spark come out, it can ignite the hydrogen gas," Xiao said. "In 10, maybe 15 years, most people will drive a hydrogen vehicle. Wherever you use hydrogen, you need sensors. We wanted to contribute to the hydrogen economy."

The sensors, which use nanotechnology, could be built the size of grains of sand and installed in fuel systems to trigger shut-off valves to close much quicker than sensors available now. To compare, Xiao's sensors can detect hydrogen (which cannot be odorized) in less than one-tenth of a second, versus current methods that take tens to hundreds of seconds to detect hydrogen. NIU says the sensors could be used in hydrogen-powered vehicles, as well as space stations, mining and medical devices.

R&D Magazine named this ultra-fast hydrogen sensor one of the Top 100 scientific and technological innovations of 2005. The Federal government also sees the value of Xiao's work (including his work in shaped superconducting mesocrystals), and recently awarded his team over $520,000 in grants.

[Source: Northern Illinois University, Suburban Chicago News]

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