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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

New Science Tools – Working Prototype for an “Instant” On-site Asbestos Monitor

(A prototype asbestos detector unit with the lid removed. Credit: Paul Kaye, University of Hertfordshire, UK.)

New scientific tools keep arriving. Now, one of them is a working prototype for quick "on-site" testing for asbestos fibers. The device provides relatively instant feedback, which of course is desirable to avoid the expenses and delays inherent in taking traditional air samples and sending them out for analysis. The research work was funded by an EU grant, which makes great sense since Europe is still seeing growing waves of mesotheliomas. The device is said to be 18 months away from production, with the sale price said to perhaps end up at seven or eight hundred dollars per machine. The Optics Express article indicates the machine does its best work with amphibole fibers.

The full article is online and free in Optics Express: The International Online Journal of Optics. A trade journal summary of the article also is online. Thanks to Bob Wassman of Rosetta Genomics for seeing this story and passing it along. Set out below is the "how it works" portion of the trade press article:

"The Hertfordshire team’s new detection method, developed under the European Commission FP7 project ‘ALERT’ (FP7-SME-2008-2), works by first shining a laser beam at a stream of airborne particles. When light bounces off the particles, it scatters to form unique, complex patterns. The pattern “is a bit like a thumbprint for the particle,” says Kaye, sometimes making it possible to identify a particle’s shape, size, structure, and orientation by looking at the scattered light.

“We can use this technique of light scattering to detect single airborne fibers that are far too small to be seen with the naked eye,” he says. After identifying the fibers, the detector carries them in an airflow through a magnetic field, and uses light scattering again on the other side to tell if the fibers have aligned with the field. “If they have, they are highly likely to be asbestos,” Kaye says."

The team has tested their detector in the lab and has worked with colleagues in the U.K. and Spain to develop prototypes that are now undergoing field trials at various locations where asbestos removal operations are underway.

Set out below is the conclusion section of the full Optics Express article:

5. Conclusion and discussion

We have demonstrated that the presence of airborne asbestos fibers can be rapidly detected

through an analysis of the spatial light scattering patterns from individual particles carried in a

sample airflow through a magnetic field. The analysis serves both to discriminate fiber

particles from all other particle types and to subsequently discriminate asbestos from nonasbestos fibers by determining the extent to which the angle of alignment of the fiber is

changed under the influence of the magnetic field. Preliminary field testing of portable

prototype Dual-beam systems, as described in section 4, has been carried out at various UK

locations where asbestos clearance or renovation work was taking place. In each case, the

presence or absence of asbestos in the building fabric was known in advance by virtue of

earlier statutory asbestos surveys. In each case, the prototype detector systems correctly

produced a positive or null response during the clearance or renovation work. Field testing

and optimization of the technique is continuing and the authors believe further improvements

in asbestos detection sensitivity and particle analysis rate (currently up to 600 particles/s) are



We gratefully acknowledge the support of European Union ‘Research for SMEs’ grant FP7-

SME-2008-2 in conducting the above research.


If the device ends up on the market and is effective, imagine the implications for keeping people healthy, and for litigation.


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