The water detector
The presence of water in jet fuel, even in the tiniest of amounts, is bad news for aircraft safety. In the 1950s, as jet turbine-powered aircraft started to replace piston-powered ones, and the use of Jet A-1 fuel became more commonplace, the problem became widely recognised. Detecting it though, was another matter.
The issue was that any contaminating water in the fuel could freeze during long flights, at high altitudes and low temperatures. The resulting ice could potentially block the filter protecting the pump as fuel is drawn into the engine leading to possible engine damage and failure.
Up until this time, the normal inspection routine saw fuel samples taken from airfield equipment for “water checks”, but these checks could not detect the small amounts of water present. Shell’s Thornton Research Centre was tasked with finding a solution and went to work. It developed a qualitative test, which gave a reliable indication of water concentration.
The resulting product was the Shell Water Detector which used filter paper sensitized with chemicals mounted on a detector head. It produced a colour change that showed the level of water contamination and crucially was reliable, fast and easy to use, as well as being economical.
This device was put into service at all airfields where Shell Aviation provided fuel from 1957 and was soon adopted more widely. The Shell Water Detector has been an important safety tool for well over 60 years and remains the industry’s system of choice to this day, protecting aircraft all around the world from fuel contamination. It is used to test fuel stored in in-service tanks, hydrant filter drains, loading filter drains, fueller filter drains, hydrant dispensers, fueller tanks and trailer tanks.
Alongside the use of the Shell Water Detector, Shell Aviation has continued to work closely with partners to ensure the highest standards of safety in refuelling. When an incident involving a passenger aircraft belonging to a major airline nearly ended in disaster in 2010, Shell was called in as an independent expert to investigate. It concluded that particles from the fuel filter (the industry standard system) had made their way into the engine, causing a failure. A working group set up by IATA to look into the issue concluded that the current filtration systems should be phased out. Shell collaborated with filter manufacturer FAUDI Aviation to develop a new approach to fuel filtration called Shell Jet Protection. The system has been extensively tested and approved for use by the Joint Inspection Group. Shell Aviation completed a roll out of the system across its entire fleet of refuelling trucks at all Shell-operated locations worldwide by the end of 2020, well ahead of the date recommended by industry regulators.
Shell Aviation News, 1957, number 224, p.20.
Shell website: https://www.shell.com/business-customers/aviation/aviation-fuel/shells-water-detector-tool.html.
Shell historical archives.
Shell Aviation supports British Airforce in developing fog dispersal systems for safer landings.
New Shell additive stops static build-up, preventing potential explosions and fires in fuel tanks.