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The Evolution and Challenges of Gas Detection Technologies


You may not be able to smell it, taste it, or discern its presence. But, in many industries, toxic and flammable gases present a significant industrial hazard. New technologies are improving gas-detection capabilities, helping safety managers ensure employee health and well-being.

It all started with the canaries.
After performing a study of asphyxia in coal miners, 19th-century scientist John Haldane engaged in dangerous self-experimentation by breathing several toxic gases just to see what would happen. Afterwards, Haldane pronounced carbon monoxide as the cause of the miners’ death and proposed a solution: Miners should carry canaries as an early detection system. In addition to the birds’ portability, Haldane determined, canaries’ anatomy makes them vulnerable to airborne poisons. If a canary stopped singing, miners had an early warning of airborne poisons, and they could escape.

Gas-detection technologies have improved considerably since those early days. And they needed to do so.


Industrial processes increasingly involve the use and manufacture of highly dangerous substances, particularly toxic and combustible gases.
Some industries generate gas hazards or rely on chemistry that itself poses a danger, such as the processes involved in electric power management, water treatment, and paper production.

Identifying dangers early and accurately is of paramount importance, because gas hazards can be invisible and hard to identify. After all, explosions do generate extremely loud noises. But a gas leak can go unrecognized until the victims experience symptoms of distress – which may be too late.

Traditionally, gas detection has been a standalone function – but that’s changing. Technology for communicating gas hazards has improved, with real-time monitoring that ensures speed and accuracy. In addition, the sensor networks that measure environmental factors are becoming connected to one another, which helps safety professionals identify problems sooner and take action faster.

These technical improvements benefit employers – but they also create new business process challenges.
When an employer tracks workers’ whereabouts to confirm their safety, employees sometimes get nervous about privacy invasion. We want to save their lives, but you don’t want to offend them, either.

Gas detection is only one of many elements in a comprehensive workplace safety plan. But it’s an important one.

Many other dangers are loud, visible, and hard to miss. Not gas hazards.
Gas hazards generally are separated into three categories:

• Flammable (fire or explosion risks, such as methane or propane)
• Toxic (poisoning risks, such as carbon monoxide or chlorine)
• Asphyxiant (suffocation risks, primarily oxygen deficiency, including situations where oxygen is consumed or displaced by another gas).

Today’s gas detection tools –beyond canaries. An optimal instrument system monitors both short- and long-term exposure levels, as well as instantaneous alarm levels.


The detection process raises an alert.
The alert spurs staff to respond appropriately, in terms of human distress, and to comply with relevant industrial regulations and safety requirements. Comprehensive guides such as the Honeywell Gas Book5 have pages and pages of charts documenting dozens of gases, along with their known harmful effects and levels of concentration. With so many
substances to identify and measure, it’s no wonder that there are several applications for fixed and portable gas detection.

Subsequent tools have built on initial mine damp detector concepts.
The sensors got smaller than canaries or specialized lamps, for one thing. But the goal
remains to identify harmful gases, and the devices are judged by attributes
including accuracy, speed of response, and sensitivity of output.

Today, there are catalytic controller detectors that use a tiny sensing element.
Or a use case may suggest the adoption of an infrared gas detector, which measures combustible gases where the absorption bands are in the infrared region of the light
spectrum. Some instruments use infrared and laser technology in the form of a broad beam
that can cover a distance of several hundred meters. And then there are electrochemical sensors, which are compact, require very little power, and generally have a long life span.

In testing, location and context matter.
Sensors that detect gas levels may collect data in a geographical area (such as
“in the factory” or “in the northwest corner of the third floor”) or at personal locations
(wherein the worker wears instruments that sample their breathing zone). Deciding which methods are right for a company’s staff depends on the specific situation.


Other issues may affect the gas detection process.
Safety managers are advised to use portable monitoring tools to limit risks when they
modify or close a plant or when they change its processes. These scenarios pose additional
site risks because they represent deviations from standard, well-understood processes.

Then there’s the matter of complexity.
How much information does a manager need? If they expect to use a gas detection system
only for warnings, system outputs can be simple, with no requirements for data storage. At
the other extreme, a complicated industrial process that integrates with large-scale IT
systems and government reporting changes the requirements list significantly.

Interested in more?  Read the full white paper article offered by Honeywell.

It is important to test and monitor in any environment where humans may come in contact with harmful gases.

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As with so many other things, when it comes to gas detection solutions, it’s important to choose the appropriate tool for the job. That means – just to start – identifying which gases to detect, recognizing possible sources where they may be found, and asking the right questions.

This article republished with permission from Honeywell.
View our other blog posts on Gas Detection.

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