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Engineers aim for early detection of concerning chemical changes at worksites

agronomist taking samples
An agronomist takes a sample with soil probe sampler. Purdue University engineers have created a suite of technologies to enhance methods to detect, identify and quantify chemicals in a range of natural, industrial and consumer settings. Photo: iStockphoto.com

West Lafayette, IN — Engineers from Purdue University say they have developed new technologies that enhance methods of detecting, identifying and quantifying chemicals in various work environments that might traditionally require lab analysis, and could protect workers from potential incidents.

Using Raman spectroscopy – a chemical analysis technique that uses light to assess the chemical composition of materials – researchers from Purdue’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering have created innovations that can examine liquids such as water, motor oil and petroleum products to identify slight changes in their makeup.

“The primary focus would be early detection of changes of studied materials that could be indicative of a problem in the working environment,” Purdue civil engineering professor Joe Sinfield told Safety+Health. “It could be a sign of contamination, an indication that a process isn’t going well or isn’t proceeding as expected. Therefore, you could alert the individuals working in that environment to that change.”


This could be especially valuable in manufacturing and processing environments.

“As machines change in their performance, there will often be signs in the liquids used in the machines – be that a lubricant, or if it happens to be a combustion machine, the fuel,” Sinfield said, noting the potential for oxidation of compounds, a gasket leak, or wear and tear.

Identifying these changes early would allow for preventive maintenance to be planned and the ability for manufacturers to get real-time information.

“That could potentially avoid not only efficiency delays and downtime, but also accidents,” Sinfield said. “If you can schedule in that maintenance, that’s a significant advantage.”

Samples taken in the field can often be disturbed between the work environment and the lab. “The closer you make that measurement to the field in the situation you’re trying to study, the more likely it is to be representative of what’s really there,” he said.

Sinfield added that the technologies also have applications in agriculture, reservoir monitoring for communities and wastewater treatment.

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