Researchers say space sensors good for terrestrial use
Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced that miniaturised ceramic gas sensors have found a new niche, and it's not in space. These sensors are used for measuring oxygen levels for spacecraft re-entry vehicles. But a group of experts in space technology have shown that the smaller sensors can be used to strengthen heater combustion control, as well as to improve human breath measurement apparatus and fuel cell production safety.
The Institute of Space Systems (IRS) of the University of Stuttgart in Germany began developing special ceramic gas sensors 15 years ago. They were used to measure oxygen distribution in the plasma wind tunnels used to test heat-shield materials for re-entry spacecraft in extreme conditions, the scientists said.
'The sensors available at that time were no good for space systems because they were big, quite heavy and used a lot of heating power,' said Rainer Baumann, a researcher at the Technical University of Dresden (TU Dresden) who took part in the project to produce the small sensor. 'So we had to develop a new type of miniaturised sensor to measure re-entry conditions for spacecraft. The sensors had to be very small and capable of measuring oxygen at high altitudes and during re-entry.'
Despite their traditional use in space-related activities, the ESA's Technology Transfer programme (TTPO) and its technology transfer network partner MST had shown in a series of presentations that the gas sensor technology can be applied elsewhere. The concept kick-started IRS scientists into action, encouraging them to further develop and promote the sensor for terrestrial and spatial use in the field of modern gas analysis.
Mr Baumann remarked, 'It is very easy to find terrestrial applications for this miniaturised gas sensor. The sensor reacts very fast and this is useful in many cases where you need to measure ambient conditions on Earth.' The researcher also touched on the practicality of using the sensor to measure human breath. 'With this sensor we can measure oxygen, carbon dioxide and the flow of human breath, and obtain the results immediately,' he said, adding it's 'something which is impossible with the (conventional) systems'.
The miniaturised sensors can also be used to control exhaust gases in household and industrial heating systems. 'The sensor works well with combustible gases and can be used to optimise the burners in industrial plants and home heating systems,' the TU researcher said. 'This system can reduce the exhaust gases that are harmful for the environment and at the same time, by ensuring the heating system works at an optimum level, it can also reduce fuel consumption by about 10% to 15%.'
From a safety perspective, the sensors can be used to spot hydrogen leakage in industrial installations, including those used for fuel cells production. 'Technology transfer is not a one-way street,' explained Frank M. Salzgeber, Director of TTPO. 'We will see more technology spinning back into space in the future.'
In a related development, the experts said that the miniaturised sensors are also being used to measure the level of gases outside the International Space Station (ISS), specifically in the unit called 'Flux (Phi) Probe Experiment – Time resolved Measurement of Atomic Oxygen'.