onsolidated 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 affiliate agreement
with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) 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. It 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 where 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 for 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 the
system can not only detect PCBs, but 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 in Pasadena manages