University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of fiber composite for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor – an odorless and colorless ingredient in combustible materials such as gasoline, airplane fuel, oil or even a homemade bomb. According to the university, there are no existing portable scanners available that can detect alkane fuel vapor.

Currently, the only way to detect alkane fuel vapor is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab. That type of instrument is not very mobile and very heavy, according to University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang.

“There’s no way it can be used in the field,” Zang says. “Imagine trying to detect the leak from a gas valve or on the pipelines. You ought to have something portable.”

This problem lead Zang and his team to develop a type of fiber composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other. The university says this composite material will be incorporated into the portable sensor array to include the detection of alkanes.

“These are two materials that interact well together by having electrons transferring from one to another,” says Ben Bunes, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Utah’s materials science and engineering department. “When an alkane is present, it sticks in between the two materials, blocking the electron transfer between the two nanofibers.”

Researchers believe the scanner could be used to locate a terrorist’s explosive or find an early-warning signal for leaks in an oil pipeline or airliner. According to Zang, Vaporsens, a company supported by Utah’s Technology Commercialization & Innovation Program (TCIP), has designed a prototype of the handheld detector and plans to formally introduce the device to the market in about a year and a half.