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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Combustible Gas Detectors Can Smell an Expanding Market

We’ve come a long way since the days of canaries in the coal mine, but toxic and combustible gases still pose a grave threat to workers, not only in coal mines, but also in refineries, petro-chemical plants, distribution facilities, and anywhere combustible gases might be present.

Recent tragedies, like the 2010 Pike River Mine explosion in New Zealand, where 29 people were killed, or more recently the Texas fertilizer plant that killed 15, or the DuPont explosion in Buffalo last year, all serve as reminders of the unseen danger that lurks in many industrial locations.

These incidents have led to new, more stringent regulations that call for additional safety systems for the oil and gas, refining, petrochemical, and mining industries. This represents a growth opportunity for the combustible and toxic gas detector industries, according to a study by ARC Advisory Group.

Breakdown of a hyperspectral camera. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Breakdown of a hyperspectral camera. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“Protection of human lives and plant assets is critical to all organizations and that is why, even though the economic recovery has slowed down in recent years, we still expect the gas detection market to grow,” said ARC Analyst Inderpreet Shoker, the principal author of ARC report.

The study finds that the market, which currently consists of hundreds of small, specialty companies, is moving toward consolidation. Large suppliers are gobbling up smaller companies in an effort to increase market share. At the same time, they can expand their product lines by adding new devices and technologies.

The dominant technology for a long time has been the catalytic detector. This type of detector works on the principle that when a type of gas oxidizes it produces heat. This allows the gas concentration to be determined by measuring the amount of heat being picked up by the sensor. These sensors are robust, simple, and can work well at high temperatures.

Disadvantages include their tendency to become contaminated, the requirement of an oxygen source, and the need for frequent calibration.

The new kids on the block are the infrared or hyperspectral cameras, which allow for real-time visualization of otherwise invisible gases. While natural gas, for example, might be invisible in the portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum that humans can see (e.g. the visible light spectrum), it is plainly visible at other wavelengths and optical instruments sensitive to those wavelengths can perceive the gas and convey that information to the operator.

These detectors measure the attenuation of an infrared optical beam due to its absorption by the gas. Various gases, particularly organic compounds, can be identified by their absorption wavelength.  Among the gases these detectors are sensitive to are alkanes, alkenes, alcohols, aromatics, amines, ethers, ketones, and aldehydes. Because of their sensitivity to VOCs, these detectors are finding widespread acceptance in the water, wastewater, and chemical industries.

These sensors are superior to catalytic sensors due to their improved reliability and durability, although they do tend to cost more and are more limited in the range of gases they can see.

Infrared detectors are also finding applications in the military where they are used to detect the presence of chemical weapons, as well as environmental monitoring and emergency response.

All detectors come with various configurations with various electronic interfaces such 4-20 mA current source or sink, or used with dedicated transmitters. Some have a working range of as much as 100 feet.

The study finds a great deal of opportunity in Asia, both because of its booming economy and its growing environmental awareness. While regulations are weak, or in some cases absent, the study’s authors expect to see this trend changing in the future.

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