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Sensor Technology

Electrochemical Sensors
[Toxic gases & oxygen]

Delphian manufactures a number of systems which incorporate electrochemical sensors including the 755 system for hydrogen sulfide, the 795 system for carbon monoxide and the 770 system for sulfur dioxide.  These systems are available with analog controllers, digital controllers, as standalone systems or attached to our SAGE system - our computerized gas monitoring system.  

(This article is reprinted with permission from THE GAS MONITORING HANDBOOK by Gerald L. Anderson & David M. Hadden, published by Avocet Press Inc in 1999)

Electrochemical sensors are used primarily to detect oxygen and toxic gases. Each sensor is designed to be specific to the gas it is intended to detect.  Electrochemical sensors are essentially fuel cells composed of noble metal electrodes in an electrolyte. The electrolyte is normally an aqueous solution of strong inorganic acids. When a gas is detected the cell generates a small current proportional to the concentration of the gas.

In its simplest form, an electrochemical sensor consists of a diffusion barrier, a sensing-electrode (sometimes called the working-electrode, measuring-electrode, or anode), a counter-electrode (sometimes called the cathode) and an electrolyte. In an environment free of chemically reactive gases, oxygen diffuses into the cell and adsorbs on both electrodes. The result is a stable potential between the two in which little, theoretically no, current flows. The cell’s chemical process at this point is:
O2 + 4H+ + 4e 2H2O

When a chemically reactive gas passes through the diffusion barrier it is either oxidized (accepts oxygen and/or gives up electrons) or reduced (gives up oxygen and/or accepts electrons), depending upon the gas. The resulting potential difference between the two electrodes causes a current to flow.

For instance, when carbon monoxide, a reducing gas, diffuses to the sensing electrode, it is oxidized causing the potential of the sensing electrode to shift in a negative (cathodic) direction. The cell’s chemical process is:

2CO + 2H2O 2CO2 + 4H+ + 4e-

O2 + 4H+ + 4e 2H2O

Cell reaction
2CO + O2 2CO2

The more modern form of toxic gas cell utilizes a third electrode called a reference electrode. This electrode has a stable potential from which no current is drawn. It is used to eliminate interference from side reactions with the counter-electrode. In addition it allows the sensing-electrode potential to be biased with respect to its rest potential. Biasing is one method of controlling sensitivity to a particular gas. In order to provide for extended storage, a shorting clip is connected across the sensing and reference terminals. This short maintains the electrodes at the same potential and keeps current from flowing through the cell.
The electrochemical cell typically consists of a casing containing an electrolyte gel and three electrodes. The top of the casing has a gas permeable membrane as well as a gas capillary. The electrodes are carefully constructed to provide maximum sensitivity and long life, through a electrode construction which allows more surface area. This allows a larger signal, a quicker response and permits a smaller volume of electrolyte to provide the same life available from large sensors. Each cell is constructed using special filters, electrodes, and electrolytes to make the cell as specific as possible. Electronics should provide appropriate bias current to eliminate interfering gas sensitivity.
Because electrochemical reactions, like all chemical processes, are temperature dependent, electrochemical sensors should incorporate a sensitive temperature sensor which the electronics use to compensate for temperature variations.


Interfering Gases
Interfering gases, often called cross-sensitivities, are gases other than the target gas which will cause the cell to react. Like virtually any sensor, electrochemical cells are not completely specific. Despite the use of carefully engineered electrodes and electrolytes, changing the operating potential of the sensing electrode and chemical filters, it is difficult to develop a catalyst which will not respond to a more active gas than the target gas. In addition, the use of a filter may often slow the response of the cell.

Blocking Mechanisms
Blocking is a condition which causes the cell to function poorly or not at all until the condition is removed. Normally the block does not damage the sensor permanently as a poison would. Some of the most common blocking mechanisms for electrochemical cells are:

Freezing the electrolyte As the temperatures of the cell decreases, the chemical reaction which the user sees as a signal decreases. At some point, depending upon the electrolyte, the cell current stops. Usually, upon returning to a normal temperature, the cell will reactivate. If you expect to use an electrochemical cell in temperatures below its normal operating temperatures, the cell should be heated. In general, the lowest temperature at which a cell can be expected to function properly over long periods of time is 0C.

Oxygen Depravation Oxygen is an essential ingredient in the reaction with gas. If the oxygen supplied to the counter-electrode is cut off, the current can not be sustained. Under normal conditions, when detecting small concentrations of gas in ambient air, an adequate supply of oxygen can easily be achieved. Oxygen deprivation can occur through a number of mechanisms:

In the event that the cell is exposed to large concentrations of a reactive gas over a sustained period, or, if the cell is flooded with one or more reactive gases, the available oxygen for a reaction can easily be used up.

When measurements need to be made in a low oxygen environment, a separate access of air to the counter-electrode must be assured. Because of electrochemical sensor’s need for an adequate supply of oxygen, it is often recommended that the oxygen content of air be sampled first before relying on these sensors for safety.

If the cell's diffusion barrier (or flame arrestor) becomes clogged or coated the normal supply of oxygen (as well as signal gas) may be cut off. Sensors used in front of air inlets, exhaust fans, or in dusty areas are likely to be clogged. A dust filter should be used and it should be cleaned regularly to prevent the cell's oxygen supply, from being depleted.

Vapor condensation on the cells diffusion barrier (or flame arrestor) can also effectively cut off the oxygen (as well as the signal gas). If the sensor temperature is lower than the atmosphere temperature, it is likely that condensation will occur. To prevent this the cell may need to be heated or the air being circulated to the cell may need to be dried.

Gases which cause an opposite reaction Gases or vapors which are electro-chemically reducible at the cathode will cause a reverse reaction in sensor chemistry, which could mask the normal operation of a sensor designed to detect an oxidizable gas. The same problem will occur if an oxidizable gas were to cause a reaction in a sensor designed to detect a reducible gas.

Poisoning Mechanisms
A poison blocks and/or degrades the sensor’s operation on a permanent basis. Prolonged exposure to a poison usually results in permanently destroying the sensor. Most sensors are not directly poisoned by a gas or vapor, but they may be poisoned indirectly. The most common are:

Solvent Vapors High concentrations of solvent vapors which attack the plastic housing or filters. The most common solvents which can cause problems (depending upon the construction of the sensor) are Alcohols, Ketones, Phenols, Pyridine, Amines, or Chlorinated solvents. Sensors used in these atmospheres may have a shorter life.

High Temperatures Continuous operation at high temperatures (usually above 40oC [ 104F]) will not only cause the electrolyte to dry out, but could cause the electrolyte to boil. In addition, at temperatures above about 30oC, many sensors begin to lose signal output reducing their span.

Altitude and pressure changes
Electrochemical sensors are not directly affected by pressures within the normal range of ambient pressures + 10%. However, sudden changes in pressure can cause more gas to be forced into the sensor producing a current transient. These transients rapidly decay to zero as the normal diffusion conditions are re-established. However, some transients could trigger false alarms.

Unlike many solid state or semiconductor devices, electrochemical sensors are not affected directly by humidity. However, continuous operation below 15% or above 90% relative humidity can change the water content of the electrolyte affecting the operation of the cell. This process occurs very slowly and depends upon the temperature, the electrolyte, and the vapor barrier. The major problem with increased humidity occurs when the volume of electrolyte exceeds the available free space, causing the cell to leak. In addition, however, an increase in moisture content can also cause the electrolyte to freeze more quickly. In dry conditions, the acid content of the electrolyte can rise, causing crystallization, or allowing the acid to attack the seals. In general, high temperature and low humidity conditions are most likely to result in a poisoned sensor.

Sensor Life
Electrochemical cells are active even when stored with a shorting clip and therefore have a limited natural life even without use. Their normal life expectancy may be up to three years from the date of manufacture. If they are being stored, it is advisable to keep them in a refrigerator rather than storing them at ambient temperature.

Sensor life can be shortened by a variety of environmental factors such as low humidity, high temperatures and exposure to poisons.
Exposure to a signal producing gas destroys a small portion of the electrolyte, therefore continuous exposures to the target gas or any interfering gas will shorten the cell’s useful life. The in-board filters also have a limited life. Prolonged exposure to gases being removed by the filter will shorten its effective life.

very linear
good selectivity
excellent repeatability and accuracy.

limited temperature range and sensitive to changes in temperature
humidity extremes can destabilize the sensor
sensitive to EMF/RFI
limited storage life
slow start-up if depolarized
care should be used when handling a cell as the electrolyte contains a strong acid.

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