University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang holds up a prototype handheld detector that can sense explosive materials and toxic gases. His research team developed a new material for the detector that can sense alkane fuel. (Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering)

Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible material such as airplane fuel. Yet it’s difficult to detect and there are no portable scanners available that can sniff out the odorless and colorless vapor. University of Utah engineers developed fiber material for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor, a valuable advancement that could be an early-warning signal for leaks in an airliner, or for locating a terrorist’s explosive.

The scanner has an array of 16 sensor materials that will be able to identify a broad range of chemicals including explosives. This new composite material will be incorporated into the sensor array to include the detection of alkanes. Fuel for aircraft is stored in removable “bladders” made of flexible fabric. The only way a leak can be detected is by seeing the dyed fuel seeping from the plane and then removing the bladder to inspect it. The new sensors could be placed around the bladder to warn a pilot if a leak is occurring in real time and where it is located.