Professors work to develop wearable air pollution detectors

Delaney Allen

Millions of people are exposed to chemicals and pollutants every day at work. For some, these pollutants are nothing more than bothersome. For others, they can be incredibly dangerous, even leading to cancer years down the line.

Two professors from the Walter Scott Jr. College of Engineering at Colorado State University are working to develop new technology that will hopefully make pollution detection accessible and cheap for those who have no choice but to put their health in danger for everyone’s safety.

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John Volckens, a mechanical engineering professor; Ellison Carter, a civil and environmental engineering assistant professor; and their team of researchers have received a four-year, $2.2 million dollar grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in order to fund their developments. The team hopes to create a wearable pollution monitor that will aid workers who may be at risk of exposure, such as construction workers, firefighters and biohazard personnel. 

“Workers are often on the front lines of air pollution exposure, whether they’re working in factories or first response,” Volckens said.

While there are mandates by the federal government to keep the air safe for workers, it is still very difficult to regulate. In a job field like firefighting, for example, proper air quality is no guarantee.

The team aims to develop new technology to conduct monitoring and sampling of the air, building on advances that Volcken’s group has made over several years. In the future, the team plans to shrink the size of the pollution detector, making it lightweight, portable and easy for workers to use.

After development, the team plans to use the new air pollution exposure assessment tool in the field.

The current method for assessing exposure to particles is woefully inadequate. There are thousands of chemical compounds you could possibly be exposed to, any one of which could be harmful.” -John Volckens, CSU mechanical engineering professor

“Not only will we get to see how the tool works technically, but working with our social science colleagues, we hope to learn about whether and how more high-quality exposure data can inform workplace safety culture and protect worker health,” Carter said.

At its core, the tech uses many of the sensors and devices in smartphones. There are an estimated 3.2 billion smartphones on the planet, and the boom in usage around the world has driven down the cost of electronic components, which makes the new air pollution devices much cheaper.

In addition to capturing and analyzing air particles, it is projected that the devices will include a GPS for tracking the location of harmful pollutants, flow sensors to calibrate the device and measurements of pressure, humidity and temperature, to name only a few things.

“The current method for assessing exposure to particles is woefully inadequate,” Volckens said. “There are thousands of chemical compounds you could possibly be exposed to, any one of which could be harmful.”

Volckens said the team is working hard to make the device widely available, affordable and simple to use.

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“While the current project doesn’t fund wide-scale commercialization and manufacturing for the product, it will provide a rich evidence base for its utility and applications, as well as provide insights into how it is received in workplace settings,” Carter said. “We also hope we will build from this work in the future and apply the device in non-occupational settings, such as with people in their homes and going about their daily lives.”

Delaney Allen can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @DelaneyAllen0.