October 19, 2018

On-site Asbestos Detector Offers Promise of Better Workplace Safety


Asbestos was once called a miracle material because of its toughness and
fire-resistant properties. It was used as insulation, incorporated into
cement and even woven into firemen’s protective clothing. Over time,
however, scientists pinned the cause of lung cancers such as
mesothelioma on asbestos fiber inhalation. Asbestos was banned in the
many industrialized countries in the 1980s, but the threat lingers on in
the ceilings, walls and floors of old buildings and homes. Now a team of
researchers from the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. has
developed and tested the first portable, real-time airborne asbestos
detector. They hope that the prototype, described in a paper published
today in the Optical Society’s (OSA)
open-access journal Optics
, will be commercialized in the U.K. in the next few
years, providing roofers, plumbers, electricians and other workers in
commercial and residential buildings with an affordable way to quickly
identify if they have inadvertently disturbed asbestos fibers into the

“Many thousands of people around the world have died from asbestos fiber
inhalation,” says 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. “Even today, long after asbestos use was
banned in most Western countries, there are many people who become
exposed to asbestos that was used in buildings decades earlier, and
these people too are dying from that exposure.”

Currently, the most common way to identify hazardous airborne asbestos
at worksites is to filter the air, count the number of fibers that are
caught, and later analyze the fibers with X-ray technology to determine
if they are asbestos. The approach requires expensive lab work and hours
of wait time. An alternative method to evaluate work site safety is to
use a real-time fiber detector, but the current, commercially available
detectors are unable to distinguish between asbestos and other less
dangerous fibers such as mineral wool, gypsum and glass. The University
of Hertfordshire team’s new detection method, in contrast, can identify
asbestos on-site. It does so by employing a laser-based technique that
takes advantage of a unique magnetic property of the mineral.

When exposed to a magnetic field, asbestos fibers orient themselves to
align with the field. The property is virtually unique among fibrous
materials. “Asbestos has a complex crystalline structure containing
several metals including silicon, magnesium and iron. It is thought that
it is the iron atoms that give rise to the magnetic properties, but the
exact mechanism is still somewhat unclear,” says Kaye. Kaye notes that
his team wasn’t the first to try to exploit the magnetic effect to
develop an asbestos detector. “Pioneering U.S.-based scientist Pedro
Lilienfeld filed a patent on a related approach in 1988, but it seems it
was not taken forward, possibly because of technical difficulties,” he

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. “Our colleagues estimate that it will take 12
to 18 months to get the first production units for sale, with a target
price of perhaps 700-800 U.S. dollars,” Kaye says. As production
increases after the initial product launch, Kaye hopes that costs may be
cut even further, making the detectors even more affordable for an
individual plumber, electrician or building renovator. “These
tradespeople are the most frequently affected by asbestos-related
diseases and most who get the diseases will die from them,” Kaye says.
The team hopes that, over time, the new detector will help to reduce the
100,000 annual death toll that the World Health Organization attributes
to occupational exposure to airborne asbestos.

Paper: “Real-time
detection of airborne asbestos by light scattering from magnetically
re-aligned fibers
,” C. Stopford et al., Optics Express, Vol.
21, Issue 9, pp. 11356-11367 (2013).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Images are available to members of the media upon
request. Contact Angela Stark, astark@osa.org.

About Optics Express

Optics Express reports on new developments in all fields of
optical science and technology every two weeks. The journal provides
rapid publication of original, peer-reviewed papers. It is published by
the Optical Society and edited by Andrew M. Weiner of Purdue University. Optics
is an open-access journal and is available at no cost to
readers online at www.OpticsInfoBase.org/OE.

About OSA

Uniting more than 180,000 professionals from 175 countries, the Optical
Society (OSA) brings together the global optics community through its
programs and initiatives. Since 1916 OSA has worked to advance the
common interests of the field, providing educational resources to the
scientists, engineers and business leaders who work in the field by
promoting the science of light and the advanced technologies made
possible by optics and photonics. OSA publications, events, technical
groups and programs foster optics knowledge and scientific collaboration
among all those with an interest in optics and photonics. For more
information, visit www.osa.org.

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Angela Stark, 202-416-1443


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On-site Asbestos Detector Offers Promise of Better Workplace Safety

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