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NASA/UCF Partnership Yields Hydrogen Leak Detection Innovation

Scientists at the University of Central Florida (UCF), in collaboration with NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) scientists and engineers, have designed, deployed, tested, and commercialized a breakthrough chemochromic pigment product to visually detect dangerous hydrogen leaks. This color-changing tape can pinpoint leaks which are odorless and colorless, and can visually notify operators instantaneously.  It is easy to use and has the potential to save lives, property, and environmental damage caused by hazardous hydrogen leaks during storage and transport.

In 2004, NASA KSC, one of the largest consumers of hydrogen (for use as rocket fuel), began looking for a simple, visual means of detecting hydrogen leaks on its complex launch systems. As the smallest and lightest of atoms, hydrogen escapes through the tiniest of cracks. That makes it a hazard, as the element is highly flammable. NASA needed a product that was easy to install, weather resistant, sun and thermal stable, and durable. A NASA program manager reached out to Dr. Ali Raissi, a mechanical engineer working in hydrogen research and development at UCF’s Florida Solar Energy Center, for a solution. Raissi conceived of a color-changing concept for a visual cue and put together a team of chemists, Drs. Nazim Muradov and Nahid Mohajeri, to develop the product.

The result, now known as Intellipigment™, is an inexpensive, portable, and simple-to-use tape that can be wrapped around pipes, flanges, fittings, and valves where possible leaks may occur. The tape changes color (going from beige to black) in the presence of hydrogen gas in less than three minutes when concentrations as low as 1% are detected, well before reaching the explosive combustion threshold of 4%. This is important for the gamut of industries where hydrogen leaks pose a threat, including aerospace, power generation, and energy storage.

NASA materials scientists, including Drs. Luke Roberson and Martha Williams, worked to improve and advance the technology to withstand the harsh launch environments. They tested the tape on systems at the Space Shuttle launch pad between Shuttle missions STS-118 and STS-134. The team then incorporated the pigments used in the tape into textiles and injection molded polymers for use in clothing worn by technicians and in equipment parts.

Dr. Mohajeri, part of the original UCF product research team, founded HySense Technology, LLC to introduce the hydrogen detection tape to the market as Intellipigment™. Mohajeri licensed the portfolio from UCF on November 1, 2013, and the first sale was completed on the same day.

The invention is backed by four issued patents and five pending patent applications, including international applications. UCF and NASA filed patents separately on aspects of the technology and signed an agreement to bundle and jointly commercialize the technology.

According to Kennedy lead polymer scientist Martha Williams, public and private partnerships such as these, along with the technology’s successful commercialization, play an important role in the agency’s overall mission.  “We’re always thinking in terms of the big picture,” she says. “As we solve problems for NASA, we’re also figuring out the best ways to transfer the technology successfully. This detector tape is a great example of that.”


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