Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

Consolidated Edison of New York, Inc. (Con Edison), has turned to NASA to develop sensor technology to detect and quickly analyze hazardous materials in the field. Using the best available commercial methods can take several hours of laboratory analysis to determine how to protect the environment and public when there is an environmental incident. Con Edison hopes to reduce that time to less than one hour.

"At Con Edison we are constantly searching for the best technology available to improve our operations," said Jerry Mele, Con Edison's director of Corporate Environmental Department. "We are optimistic that NASA's sensor technology will help make our underground work more efficient and environmentally safer. "

Con Edison recently signed a technology affiliates agreement with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to gain access to JPL researchers with experience in developing sensors. By becoming a technology affiliate member, Con Edison will work directly with JPL researchers to develop the sensors. The sensor will search for two specific chemical families --polychlorinated biphenyl compounds, or PCBs, and perfluorocarbon tracers or, PFTs.

PCB is a toxic chemical that was used to insulate high-voltage transformers. It also prevents pipes from rusting, adheres to any surface, tolerates extreme heat and does not degrade. Prior to 1970, all major utility companies used PCB oil in their transformers. The United States banned the use of PCBs in the early 1970s.

The current method of identifying PCB concentrations at an environmental incident takes up to eight hours. The crew must drive to the location, take a sample of the suspect liquid or sludge, transport it to the analytical laboratory and then analyze the samples using a gas chromatograph system.

Mounted on a truck, JPL's Reversal Electron Attachment Detection system would allow workers to take the sample and analyze it on the spot in about 30 minutes. This would give Con Edison the ability to quickly determine what worker protection is necessary and if any personnel or equipment exposed to the PCBs must be decontaminated. It will also characterize the waste for disposal. The increased speed of analysis will allow for faster clean-up response and further protection of the environment.

"This is one example wherein the increased sensitivity of the JPL detection system translates directly into speed of detection and quantification," said Dr. Ara Chutjian, senior research scientist and leader of the Atomic and Molecular Collisions Team at JPL. "This will be true in New York City. It will also be true for detecting other chemical vapors, such as explosives and nerve-agent detection at airports, harbors and in public buildings where speed is key in attaining security without impeding the commercial flow."

Another application of the JPL system is the detection of PFTs. Con Edison injects trace amounts of PFTs into the insulating oil used in its high-voltage transmission lines routed under the streets of New York City. These trace amounts of PFTs are used to pinpoint insulating-oil leaks from underground power lines.

The current system uses a slower PFT detector on a truck. The truck moves continuously along city streets until it detects a leak. The driver must drive over the area several times and gradually "home in" on the leak. The slower the detector, the farther the distance the truck moves from the leak site before a "hit" is registered, and the longer it takes to backtrack and find the leak. The JPL system would be faster with no lag time. A "hit" would be made in close proximity to the actual leak, requiring minimal backtracking, saving worker time.

In this first phase, which began on May 1 and will last through August, JPL researchers are testing pure PCB samples from New York manholes. They successfully demonstrated that the system can not only detect PCBs, but can also quantify their concentrations. In the second phase, JPL and Con Edison will make the sensors compact and portable, and compatible for use by Con Edison.

The sensor technology being applied to help Con Edison was first developed through two separate partnerships with the Federal Aviation Administration to detect explosive vapors at airports, and with the U.S. Navy to detect unexploded ordnance on the ocean floor.

The Technology Affiliates Program is just one of several JPL technology transfer programs designed to bring the benefits of the space program to American industry.

The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.

News Media Contact

JPL/Carolina Martinez (818) 354-9382
NASA HQ/Michael Braukus (202) 358-1979
Con Edison/Brenda Perez (212) 460-4111