Electrochemical sensors are the most used in diffusion mode in which gas in the ambient environment enters through a hole in the face of the cell. Some instruments use a pump to supply air or gas samples to the sensor. A PTFE membrane is fitted over the hole to prevent water or oils from entering the cell. Sensor ranges and sensitivities can be varied in design by using different size holes. Larger holes provide higher sensitivity and resolution, whereas smaller holes reduce sensitivity and resolution but increase the range.
Electrochemical sensors have several benefits.
- Can be specific to a particular gas or vapor in the parts-per-million range. However, the degree of selectivity depends on the type of sensor, the target gas and the concentration of gas the sensor is designed to detect.
- High repeatability and accuracy rate. Once calibrated to a known concentration, the sensor will provide an accurate reading to a target gas that is repeatable.
- Not susceptible to poisoning by other gases, with the presence of other ambient vapours will not shorten or curtail the life of the sensor.
- Less expensive than most other gas detection technologies, such as IR or PID technologies. Electrochemical sensors are also more economical.
Issues with cross-sensitivity
Cross-sensitivity occurs when a gas other than the gas being monitored/detected can affect the reading given by an electrochemical sensor. This causes the electrode within the sensor to react even if the target gas is not actually present, or it causes an otherwise inaccurate reading and/or alarm for that gas. Cross-sensitivity may cause several types of inaccurate reading in electrochemical gas detectors. These can be positive (indicating the presence of a gas even though it is not actually there or indicating a level of that gas above its true value), negative (a reduced response to the target gas, suggesting that it is absent when it is present, or a reading that suggests there is a lower concentration of the target gas than there is), or the interfering gas can cause inhibition.
Factors affecting electrochemical sensor life
There are three main factors that affect the sensor life including temperature, exposure to extremely high gas concentrations and humidity. Other factors include sensor electrodes and extreme vibration and mechanical shocks.
Temperature extremes can affect sensor life. The manufacturer will state an operating temperature range for the instrument: typically -30˚C to +50˚C. High quality sensors will, however, be able to withstand temporary excursions beyond these limits. Short (1-2 hours) exposure to 60-65˚C for H2S or CO sensors (for example) is acceptable, but repeated incidents will result in evaporation of the electrolyte and shifts in the baseline (zero) reading and slower response.
Exposure to extremely high gas concentrations can also compromise sensor performance. Electrochemical sensors are typically tested by exposure to as much as ten-times their design limit. Sensors constructed using high quality catalyst material should be able to withstand such exposures without changes to chemistry or long-term performance loss. Sensors with lower catalyst loading may suffer damage.
The most considerable influence on sensor life is humidity. The ideal environmental condition for electrochemical sensors is 20˚Celsius and 60% RH (relative humidity). When the ambient humidity increases beyond 60%RH water will be absorbed into the electrolyte causing dilution. In extreme cases the liquid content can increase by 2-3 times, potentially resulting in leakage from the sensor body, and then through the pins. Below 60%RH water in the electrolyte will begin to de-hydrate. The response time may be significantly extended as the electrolyte or dehydrated. Sensor electrodes can in unusual conditions be poisoned by interfering gases that adsorb onto the catalyst or react with it creating by-products which inhibit the catalyst.
Extreme vibration and mechanical shocks can also harm sensors by fracturing the welds that bond the platinum electrodes, connecting strips (or wires in some sensors) and pins together.
‘Normal’ life expectancy of electrochemical Sensor
Electrochemical sensors for common gases such as carbon monoxide or hydrogen sulphide have an operational life typically stated at 2-3 years. More exotic gas sensor such as hydrogen fluoride may have a life of only 12-18 months. In ideal conditions (stable temperature and humidity in the region of 20˚C and 60%RH) with no incidence of contaminants, electrochemical sensors have been known to operate more than 4000 days (11 years). Periodic exposure to the target gas does not limit the life of these tiny fuel cells: high quality sensors have a large amount of catalyst material and robust conductors which do not become depleted by the reaction.
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