Graphene might be the latest and greatest hero of the scientific community, but lasers are still awesome and have a new trick up their sleeves to prove it. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom have developed a device that can detect the presence of airborne asbestos particles — a fireproof material now known to cause lung cancers like mesothelioma — using a laser-based detection system.
The previous and most accurate method for testing for asbestos involves filtering the air in a given location and sending the captured particles to a lab for X-ray analysis and confirmation — a time consuming process. But this new approach takes advantage of the fact that asbestos is slightly magnetic, a rare property that's unique among fibrous materials.
The detector first blasts a cloud of airborne particles with a laser and the crystalline structure of asbestos scatters the focused light producing recognisable patterns almost like a fingerprint. These particles are then sucked into the detector where they then pass through a magnetic field. Since asbestos is also magnetic the particles align themselves and as they exit the detector the same laser-based light scattering technique is used to confirm their presence.
Working with colleagues in Spain the British team has already developed prototypes that are currently undergoing field trials. And the researchers are optimistic that within 12 to 18 months the first production units will go on sale for around $US800. So here's to hoping the field tests do go well, as this device literally has the potential to save lives. [OpticsInfoBase via medGadget]