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HomeISAPublicationsInTechMagazine2010/JulAugAutomationBasics:Combustiblegasdetectorsensordrift:Catalyticvs.infrared

July/August 2010
Combustible gas detector sensor drift: Catalytic vs. infrared
By Kelly Rollick, Allan Roczko, and Leslie Mitchell
Catalyticbeadcombustiblesensortechnology,usedfordecadestomeasurecombustiblegasconcentrations,datesbacktothe1830s.Theinfraredspectrumwasdiscoveredin
1800.The1950ssawasurgeininfraredspectrumuseformanytechnologicalapplications,includinggasdetection.Thesedistinctgasdetectiontechnologiesofferadvantagesand
disadvantages,withconditionsdeterminingthebetterchoiceforspecificapplications.

Catalytic bead sensor


Thecatalyticbeador"hotwire"sensoristhemostcommoncombustiblegasdetectortype.ThisdetectorconsistsoffourelementswithinaWheatstoneBridgecircuittwoelements
arefixedresistors,andtwoareexposedfilamentsorpelementsexposedtoatmosphere.Onepelement,thedetector,reactswithcombustiblegas,causingariseinpelement
temperature,producingaresistancechangeresultinginbridgeimbalance.Theinactivepelementorcompensatorrespondsasanactiveelementtotemperatureandhumidity
changes,keepingthebridgebalancedduringnormalatmosphericchanges.Thedetector'sresistancechangeandresultingbridgeimbalanceisproportionaltotheatmosphere's
combustiblegasconcentration.Catalyticsensorsrespondtoanycombustiblegasorvaportowhichtheyareexposed.Thistechnology,inserviceformorethan80years,hasalways
beenrobustaswellaseasytoinstallanduse.

Becausethesensorrunshot(surfacetemperature~500C),asdoesalightbulb,itcanburnout.Thecausemaybeafilamentbreakingopenandcanbeprecededbyanupscale
drift,asthefilamentthinsoutasmetalisvaporized.Thisprocesscausesresistancetoclimbandthebridgecircuittobecomeunbalanced,duetoage,impuritieswithinthematerials,
orrepeatedhighcombustiblegasconcentrationexposure.Asecondmodeofcatalyticcombustiblesensordriftiscausedbycorrosion,mostlyfromcombustionbyproducts.
Hydrocarboncombustionalwaysproduceswaterandcarbondioxidehalogenatedhydrocarbonssuchasmethylchlorideordifluoroethanealsoproducecorrosivematerialssuchas
hydrogenchloride.Thesematerialscombinewithwaterandformenoughacidonbasicsensorelementstoattackweldjointsandbasemetalcomponents,introducinganother
variableintotheactivesensingmechanismanddisplaysasbaselinedrift.Driftdirection,positiveornegative,willdependuponwhichsideofthebridgecorrodesatafasterrate.

Anotherdriftmechanismisabsorptionofliquidmaterialbyporousmetalflashbackarrestors.Ifthematerialisoflowvaporpressure(i.e.,oilorhighflashpointsolvents),itwill
evaporateataveryslowrateandintroduceacontinuoussourceofhydrocarbontothesensoruntilitisallfinally"cooked"off,returningthesensortonormaloperation.

Anotablesafetyhazardisthatofflashbackarrestorsaturation,asgasandvaporsareblockedfromenteringthesensorandarethereforenotdetected.Inaddition,thecatalystmay
beaffectedbyinhibitorssuchasleadorsiliconthatmaybepresentinthesample,readingasspanlossratherthanbaselinedrift,andeventuallyleadingtoacompletelyinactive
sensor.Duetocombustionreaction,catalyticsensorsrequireoxygentooperate.CatalyticsensorscannotreadgasconcentrationsbelowtheLEL(limitedbyfuel)orabovetheUEL
(limitedbyoxygen)andsimplyburnsallavailablefuel.Operatorsmayberequiredtoinvestigatealarmconditionsusinganotherinstrumenttoverifystatus.

Infrared combustible sensors


Infrared(IR)combustiblegasdetectorsoffersolutionstoallpreviouslymentionedproblems.ThissensortypeconsistsofasingleIRsource,abeamsplitter,andtwodetectors.One
detectorisusedtomonitorthecharacteristichydrocarbonwavelength.Theotherisareferencethatmonitorsanatmospheric"window"wherenoIRactivegasesarenormally
present.Infraredenergyisemittedfromthesource,passesthroughthegascell,andisreflectedbacktothedetectors.Ifnohydrocarbonsarepresentwithinthegassample,then
energyreachingthedetectoristhesame.If,however,somecombustiblehydrocarbonsarepresent,theywillabsorbsomeIRenergyatthatwavelength,thusreducingtheamount
receivedbytheanalytedetector.

Thereferencedetectoralwaysreceivesthesameamountofenergythedifferencebetweenthetwodetectorswillbeproportionaltotheamountofgaspresentinthesample.Thegas
sampleentersandleavesthecellunchanged.Nothinghasbeentransformed,substituted,orremovedfromit.AstheIRsourceages,itsenergylevelmaybereduced.Becausethere
isonlyonesource,theenergylevelreductionwillaffectbothsensorsequally,andnoimbalanceisdetected.Ifopticalmaterials(windowandmirror)aredirty,theinstrumentcan
detectanunacceptablylowenergylevelandsignalsINSTRUMENTFAULT.Asimplecleaningreturnstheinstrumenttonormaloperation.Ifliquidhassplashedontotheoptics,the
INSTRUMENTFAULTsignalwillwarnusersofthesituation,andthecleaningoperationisagainrequired.

Noextremesoftemperatureareneededorcreatedforthisdetectionmethod,resultinginlessstressonconstructionmaterials.Sincenocombustionoccurs,nocorrosivecombustion
byproductsareproduced.Inaddition,anextremelystabilesensorbaselineisproduced.Finally,allIRdetectoractivecomponentsarehousedinasealedchamberbehindaninert
sapphirewindow,isolatedfromthesample.Eventhemostcorrosivestreamcomponentscannotattackthesourceordetectorsduetothishermeticseal.Sinceallelectronicsand
activecomponentsaresealedawayfromthecombustiblegasenvironment,thereisnoneedforaflashbackarrestor,providingtheaddedadvantageofimprovedgasresponse.The
closecouplingoftheelectronicstotheIRsensordoeshoweverlimititshightemperatureoperation.ExceedingtheoperationaltemperaturelimitcancauseIRsensordriftorfailure.
Duetocomponentprecisionandassembly,IRsensorshavehigherinitialcostthandocatalyticdetectors.IRsensorsdonotrequireoxygentooperatehowever,theydonotdetectall
combustiblegases(forexample,hydrogen),astheyarelimitedtodetectionofhydrocarbons.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS


KellyRollickisanMSAApplicationsEngineer.AllanRoczkoistheMSAProductLineManager,PermanentInstruments.LeslieMitchellisamarketingwriterwithMSA.

https://www.isa.org/standardsandpublications/isapublications/intechmagazine/2010/august/automationbasicscombustiblegasdetectorsensordriftcatalyt 1/1