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Metrology

Leak Testing 101—Part 4

Helium leak detection methods for stringent leak-testing applications

Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 05:30

In parts one, two, and three of this “Leak Testing 101” series, we discussed three methods of dry-air leak testing—pressure decay, differential pressure decay, and mass-flow leak testing—including the pitfalls and hidden costs inherent in two-step pressure testing methods and the higher accuracy of single point measurement mass-flow leak testing techniques.

Is mass-flow leak testing always the best leak testing method? Absolutely not. When accuracy and cycle time requirements are not that stringent, pressure decay testing or differential pressure decay testing can be a better application match because test instrumentation does not require as much specialization and related cost. At the other extreme, when very small leaks of less than 0.01 standard cubic centimeters per minute (sccm) must be detected, helium mass spectrometer leak testing methods may be required. It is the only reliable method when an application requires detecting leaks as small as 10–4 standard cubic centimeters per second (sccs) or less.

There are several different helium leak detection methods:

Sniffer—The test item is pressurized with helium and an operator moves a sniffer probe connected to the mass spectrometer to localize the leak. This method is slow, nonquantitative but has the advantage of localizing the leak.

Accumulation—The test item is placed in a chamber and charged with helium. Helium leaking from the part accumulates in the chamber and after a certain amount of time, a sniffer probe checks for the presence of helium, i.e., a leak. While apparently inexpensive, this method has a number of shortcomings: presence of tracer gas from prior tests, lack of adequate circulation in the chamber, and long test times due to background effects. As a result, it will be difficult to provide quantitative testing with this method.

Vacuum leak testing with helium—Figure 1 shows how helium mass spectrometer leak testing proceeds. The part is pressurized with helium and the chamber is evacuated down to less than 0.1 mbar absolute to eliminate background effects. The presence of helium leaking into the chamber is then detected by the mass spectrometer.

Figure 1: Test item is pressurized with helium within a test chamber. The chmber is evacuated, drawing helium out of the leaking test item. Mass spectromter then samples the vacuum chamber.

Equipment costs, maintenance costs, extra time required to evacuate helium from test fixturing in between test cycles, and ever rising helium costs makes this method the method of last resort. Typical applications include: heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) components; pace makers; aluminum wheels; and airbag components.

For these type applications where leaks of 10–4 sccs or less must be detected for product integrity or safety, helium has its well-deserved place in the repertoire of best-match leak test techniques to consider.

In the next part of this Leak Testing 101 series we will discuss miscellaneous other testing techniques including: hydrogen ultrasonic, bubble testing, and air under water.

If you would like specific questions on best practices for leak testing (and other testing topics) answered in future articles, please send me your questions at jhoffmann@intertechdevelopment.com.

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About The Author

Jacques Hoffmann’s picture

Jacques Hoffmann

Jacques Hoffmann is founder and president of InterTech Development Co., a world leader in test-centric assembly specializing in automated leak and functional testing with mass flow, hydraulic, helium, or pressure decay technology (ISO-17025 accredited). InterTech Development Co.-engineered solutions are used by hundreds of quality management, product design teams, and manufacturers worldwide and the company’s worldwide support organization maintains offices in North America, Asia, and Europe.