Natural Gas Leak Detection is Changing

Natural gas is often considered the safest and cleanest fossil fuel. These features make it popular for industrial and commercial applications. Unfortunately, it can be incredibly dangerous when a natural gas leak goes undetected. While it is non-toxic, natural gas can cause death by suffocation by displacing oxygen. It is also naturally odorless, colorless, and tasteless, making it very difficult to detect. New technologies addressing natural gas leak detection can help workplaces remain safer.

Even at lower concentrations, natural gas can cause disorientation and incapacitation. Uncontained, natural gas combustion can be hazardous. It causes a very sharp pressure shock in the air/gas mixture, resulting in a flash fire. In confined spaces, the result is an explosion. Early natural gas leak detection critical for maintaining a safe workplace.

Current Natural Gas Leak Detection Methods

As a combustible gas, natural gas is commonly detected using catalytic sensors (Pellistor/Cat Bead) or infrared (NDIR) sensors. Pellistor/Cat Bead sensors measure temperature differences between two beads – an inert one and one coated in a chemical catalyst.

As an internal heater raises the temperature within the sensor, the bead coated in catalyst heats more than the inert one if they are in the presence of a flammable gas. The difference in temperature allows the sensor to provide a reading related to the concentration of the hazardous gas being measured.

Unfortunately, catalytic sensors do not work in zero- or low-oxygen environments. They also become poisoned when exposed to high concentrations of flammable and combustible gases. And even if poisoned, these sensors can still appear to be functioning normally. This feature can expose workers to hazardous scenarios since they will not provide an accurate response when natural gas is present.

Infrared sensors (NDIRs) use infrared light, which is absorbed at certain wavelengths by hazardous gases.  By measuring the intensity of the light transmitted through a sensing chamber containing gas and comparing it to a reference, the instrument can determine the concentration of hazardous gas present. Like catalytic sensors, non-dispersive infrared sensors have limitations. They cannot detect hydrogen, and they are costly.

Both of these sensors require frequent calibration and use high amounts of power, adding to their total cost of ownership. While they can aid in detecting natural gas, new advances in gas detection technology offer advantages to both of these legacy technologies.

MPS Sensors and the Future of Gas Detection

The Molecular Property Spectrometer (MPS) uses a micro-electromechanical (MEMS) transducer. The transducer is able to measure changes in the thermal properties of surrounding air and gases. The output reading from this gas detector includes environmental data to identify gases’ type and concentration in the near vicinity. It can accurately detect up to twelve gases, including natural gas.

The MPS sensor can outperform catalytic sensors and non-dispersive infrared sensors when detecting natural gas leaks. It has the advantage in multiple areas.

  • Calibration: The MPS sensor never needs calibration. It can provide stable, reliable results for up to a year. Other natural gas sensors need calibration far more frequently or at least require bump tests.
  • No Poisoning of the Sensor: Unlike catalytic sensors, MPS sensors will not become poisoned when exposed to any concentration of combustible gas. These sensors do not drift or decay, ensuring accurate results over time. MPS sensors also have fail-safe and self-diagnostic capabilities. This feature ensures that the user is alerted to faulty or malfunctioning equipment – before they attempt to use the sensor in a potentially hazardous area.
  • Reliable in All Environmental Conditions: Catalytic and NDIR sensors can become unreliable when there are extreme or rapid changes in environmental conditions. These temperature, pressure, and humidity changes can result in inaccurate readings. The MPS sensor, on the other hand, can reliably detect the presence of natural gas across a variety of environmental conditions. The sensor will deliver an accurate reading in temperatures ranging from -40C to 75C and between 0% to 100% relative humidity.
  • Cost: While catalytic sensors are relatively cheap, NDIR sensors are proprietary technology, making them quite expensive. However, both types of sensors have a much higher total cost of ownership than many users anticipate. Because they require frequent calibration and/or replacement, the total cost over the lifetime of the detector is high. MPS sensors require infrequent calibration and are competitively priced, which can lead to long-term cost savings. And with an average life expectancy that exceeds five years, MPS gas detectors rarely need replacement.
  • Easy to Use: With legacy gas detectors, the need for frequent calibration and their limitations make it hard to know if you are truly getting an accurate reading. Gas detectors with the MPS sensor are easy to use. They also have an easy-to-understand interface that provides the data that workers need to know when natural gas is present in dangerous concentrations.

The Future of Natural Gas and Natural Gas Leak Detection

The natural gas industry has grown exponentially over the last several decades, especially in the last ten years. As a relatively safe fossil fuel, natural gas production will likely continue to grow in the coming decades. But don’t let this gas’ reputation as ‘relatively safe’ lull you into a false sense of security.

The reality is that natural gas is still an incredibly dangerous gas when in high concentrations or in conditions where it can ignite. Companies simply cannot afford to be lax when it comes to detecting natural gas leaks. Early and reliable natural gas leak detection is crucial for swift responses. The MPS sensor is the latest technology for detecting many hazardous gases. It can be a powerful tool used to protect your workplace.