If you haven’t noticed, I’m something of a science nerd. As such, any time I come across a scientific process or discipline that I’m not familiar with, the needle on my intrigue-o-meter (patent pending) instantly flips way over to the right. And so, the first installment of Demo Science’s Little Known Science series.
So, What is It?
Leak detection is, more or less, exactly what you would expect: using sophisticated, specialized equipment to detect leaks. In this case, leak detection refers specifically to finding air or gas leaks in pressure vessels and other devices where even the smallest leak could lead to big problems. Think about it—there are tons of devices we encounter every day that contain pressurized gases, and, though we may not realize it, a miniscule hole, a tiny crack, or a flawed weld could spell disaster.
I became aware of this particular little known area of science through a company called Cincinnati Test Systems. They really seem to know their stuff, and to hear them tell it, leak detection is no mean feat. It’s not like finding a leak in a car tire, where you can just pour soapy water on it and watch for the bubbles. There is roughly a metric ton of science and technology that goes into properly diagnosing a pressurized gas leak.
The folks at Cincinnati Test Systems design and manufacture a whole line of leak detection equipment, because, much like skinning a cat, there’s more than one way to detect a leak. The various methods include, but are not limited to, pressure decay testing, vacuum decay testing, mass flow testing, and helium leak testing. On top of that, there are multiple units of measurement that can be used, as well. (I’d list some of them here, but they’re all abbreviations that would require more explanation than you’re probably willing to read.)
Of the different testing methods, helium leak testing seems to be the most commonly used and, from what I can tell, the most effective. Helium is used as a tracer gas because it penetrates small leaks quickly, is nontoxic and chemically inert, and is present in the atmosphere is such low quantities that you won’t get a misreading due to ambient interference.
Each of the different testing methods (and measurement units) is uniquely suited to specific applications, and the Cincinnati Test Systems people are such experts that they can tell you which type of each to use depending on what you’re testing and how the tested item in question is used. It’s nothing short of scientifically incredible.