Portable gas sensor maintains high performance

Scientists at Sandia Labs have shrunk chemical analyzers from room size to briefcase size (Pixabay)

Portable gas sensors have traditionally sacrificed performance for a smaller size. Sandia National Laboratory scientists have developed a gas sensor that reportedly does not sacrifice performance,

Chemical identification typically involves collecting a sample at the scene of a chemical release and bringing it back to a room full of equipment operated by trained personnel. The machines sift through a sample of various gases and weigh the molecules to determine their identities. The portable versions of these instruments, known as mass spectrometers, are less sensitive than their lab-based counterparts.

Joshua Whiting, an analytical chemist at Sandia National Laboratories, examines a gas sensor that could be used in a sensitive portable system to detect chemical weapons or airborne toxins (Image source: Randy Montoya).
Joshua Whiting, an analytical chemist at Sandia National
Laboratories, examines a gas sensor that could be used
in a sensitive portable system to detect chemical weapons
or airborne toxins (Image source: Randy Montoya).

Briefcase-sized instruments from Sandia have sniffed for nerve and blister agents continuously for 22 months in the Boston subway without a false alarm. Sensors about the size of an AA battery can detect a compound in sweat that signals smuggled humans. Handheld gas sensor systems can also monitor crop health by identifying gases that plants release when stressed by drought or sickness.

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Joshua Whiting, an analytical chemist at Sandia, and his colleagues shrunk their sensor to about the size of a dollar bill while also increasing the performance of the sensor. The system now separates a gas sample twice — yet performs an entire analysis in less than 10 seconds. The extra separation step reduces interference from solvents, cleaners and diesel fuel that could also be in the air during a chemical weapons release. Less interference also means the signal for detected target compounds is more reliable.

In a paper recently published in Lab on a Chip, the researchers used the sensor to identify each ingredient of a 29-compound mixture in seven seconds. The system also reliably detected compounds that simulate mustard gas and phosphonate-based nerve agents during 40 days of continuous operation.

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