New hydrogen sensor inspired by butterfly wings and powered by light

Inspired by the surface of a butterfly’s wings, the researchers developed a light-activated hydrogen sensor. It gives ultra-precise results even at room temperature.

The technology can detect hydrogen leaks long before it poses a safety risk. Also, the technology is applicable in medicine. Measuring the tiny amount of gas in people’s breath helps in diagnosing bowel disease.

It’s worth noting that commercial hydrogen sensors only operate at temperatures of 150°C or higher. The prototype, developed by scientists at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, is powered by light, not heat.

Based on an uneven microstructure that mimics the surface of a butterfly’s wings, the sensor is detailed in a new study published in the journal ACS Sensors.

Some sensors can measure tiny amounts; others can detect higher concentrations; they all need a lot of heat to work. Our hydrogen sensor can do it all – it is sensitive, accurate, operates at room temperature, and can detect hydrogen across the full range of levels.

Ylias M. Sabri, one of the researchers

The sensor can detect hydrogen in concentrations ranging from 10 ppm molecules (for medical diagnoses) to 40,000 ppm (the gas level becomes potentially explosive).

Lead researcher Dr. Ahmad Kandjani said its wide detection range makes it ideal for both medical use and safety enhancement in the emerging hydrogen economy.

“Hydrogen can be the fuel of the future, but we know that safety concerns can affect public confidence in this renewable energy source,” he concludes.

The innovative core of the new sensor consists of tiny spheres – photonic or colloidal crystals. Like tiny bumps on the surface of butterfly wings, these hollow shapes are highly ordered structures that absorb light very efficiently. This efficiency allows the new sensor to consume all the energy it needs to operate from the light beam, not heat.

Ebtsam Alenezy, Ph.D. and first author of the study, emphasized that the room temperature sensor is safer and cheaper to operate compared to commercial counterparts, which typically operate at temperatures between 150 and 400°C.

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