Butterfly wings inspire light powered hydrogen sensor

04 December 2020 | Muriel Cozier

‘…we hope to contribute to advancing a hydrogen economy that can transform energy supplies around the world.’

Inspired by the surface of butterfly wings, researchers at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, have developed a sensor that can detect hydrogen leaks well before they pose a safety risk. The technology can also measure minuscule amounts of the gas on a person’s breath, enabling the diagnosis of some gut disorders.  The research has been published in the journal ACS Sensors.

The core of the new sensor is an electronic chip covered with a thin layer of tiny spheres known as photonoic crystals. This is then covered with a titanium palladium composite. The photonic crystals are similar in shape to the bumps found on the surface of butterfly wings, which are highly ordered structures and very efficient at absorbing light. 

It is this structure that makes the new sensor unique in that commercial hydrogen sensors work at temperatures of 150oC or higher, but the prototype sensor, because of the crystals, can draw ‘all the energy it needs to operate from a beam of light.’  Ebtsam Alenezy, PhD researcher and first author of the study said ‘The photonic crystals enable our sensor to be activated by light and they also provide the structural consistency that’s critical for reliable gas sensing.  Having a consistent structure, consistent fabrication quality and consistent results are vital, and that’s what nature has delivered for us through these bio-inspired shapes.’

The researchers say that their sensor can detect hydrogen at concentrations as low as 10ppm, for medical diagnosis to 40 000ppm, the level at which the gas becomes explosive.  Dr Ahmad Kandjani, co-lead researcher said that the broad detection range made it ideal for medical use and boosting safety in the emerging hydrogen economy. ‘Hydrogen has the potential to be the fuel of the future, but we know safety fears could affect public confidence in this renewable energy source. By delivering precise  and reliable sensing technology that can detect the tiniest leaks, well before they become dangerous, we hope to contribute to advancing  a hydrogen economy that can transform energy supplies around the world.’ A provisional patent has been filed for the technology.

ACS Sensors: DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.0c01387

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