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Portable, real-time asbestos detector improves work place safety

03 May 2013

The first portable, real-time airborne asbestos detector to provide a low-cost warning device to tradespeople has been developed and tested.

'Alert’ portable concept - the proposed design for the future commercialised portable asbestos detector (photo: Clara Solves, Instituto de Biomechánica de Valencia (IBV), Spain)

Professor Paul Kaye, a member of the team that developed the new detection method at the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, said: “Currently there is no real-time on-site method for detecting airborne asbestos.  There are real-time instruments that can detect fibres but not distinguish between asbestos and other less dangerous fibres such as mineral wool, gypsum and glass. To identify asbestos fibres normally requires expensive off-site lab work and hours of wait time.”

“By exploiting a unique magnetic property of asbestos, we developed a new detection method which can provide on-site, real-time identification of the dangerous asbestos fibres.”

When airborne asbestos fibres are exposed to a magnetic field, they tend to align with the field. This alignment can be detected by analysing light scattering patterns.  By shining a laser light beam at a stream of airborne particles, a light scatter pattern is created which is unique to the type, size and shape of the particles - a bit like a thumbprint for the particle.  By measuring the light scatter patterns before and after a magnetic field enables asbestos fibres to be readily identified.

Together with colleagues in the UK and Spain, prototype units have been developed and are undergoing field trials at various asbestos removal operations locations – with an estimated twelve to eighteen months to get the first production units for sale.  The team hopes that, over time, the new detector will help to reduce the 100,000 annual death toll that the World Health Organisation attributes to occupational exposure to airborne asbestos.


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