How can we see the invisible?
In highly unusual places, an army of small portable devices is already detecting what can’t be seen by the naked eye.
Such state-of-the art technology is showing that the future can, to some extent, be predicted and prevented, with no need for a crystal ball.
Asbestos is a silent, invisible killer that claims thousands of lives in Europe each year.
Researchers have installed a small box and a computer at a construction site in England. Its aim: to detect asbestos and prevent unnecessary deaths.
Physicist Chris Stopford from the University of Hertfordshire explained more about the prototype asbestos detector, known as “ALERT”:
“It is currently plugged into a laptop, which does all the data recording and manipulation. The screen is displaying the scattering pattern from every particle that goes through the instrument. Here it is quite dusty, but it is random dust rather than being fibres, so we are not seeing any asbestos fibres at all. The device works by bringing air into this inlet and into a chamber where a particle is illuminated first by one laser and the scattering pattern from that is captured and is then exposed to a magnetic field, which preferentially rotates asbestos fibres against non-asbestos fibres.”
When exposed to magnetic fields, asbestos fibres react in a very particular way: they rotate. Researchers matched that property with laser science to develop their device.
“This fibre is about 1,000 times larger than an asbestos fibre,” continues Stopford. “But when when we introduce it to a laser beam, it illuminates itself in exactly the same way as an asbestos fibre would, creating a very similar scattering pattern”
Their work also involves dealing with real asbestos fibres. Such risky research techniques are now possible thanks to huge technological advances and lower costs:
“The primary reason this has not been done before now is funding issues. Lasers were very expensive. Computer power was also very expensive,” Stopford remarks.
“So researchers could not make something cheap and portable that people could take out into the field and use. Now lasers have come down in price; also computer power has come down in price”.
Confident that their prototype works, researchers are moving on with the project.
“The next step from this prototype is to remove the laptop, to have some internal electronics doing the data analysis,” explains Stopford.
“After that, we would like to increase the air flow, so that we’ll look at more particles per second and we get analysed a larger proportion of air in a room through the instrument more quickly”.
ALERT project coordinator, Alan Archer, would like to develop the system further.
“We have already in mind a hand-held version of ALERT. We feel that we need to have a unit that is worn,” he explains.
“So that when a contract is drilling and hammering, the system breathes the same air that he breathes. That would give a vibration and an audio alarm. It only takes one fibre to be inhaled to do substantial damage in someone´s body, so you want to avoid, wherever possible to have contact with airborne asbestos”.
But sometimes seeing what’s invisible can also be a quest to improve wine quality, at grass roots level.
At one vineyard in Portugal, a different type of grape harvest is underway.
Researchers are testing a small device called “winepen,” which can, quite literally, write down what is deep inside the grapes.
Agronomist Teresa Manso thinks the device is very useful.
“It allows us to measure the ripeness of grapes on site and in a non-destructive way. We can very quickly measure the levels of sugar, acidity and polyphenols inside the grapes,” she said, adding “The device has an integrated GPS system, so we can walk all the way through the vineyard making different measurements. We can then manage the vineyard taking into account this data.”
The device works by measuring the natural response of grapes and their molecules to light.
Data provided by the pen is then uploaded into computers, linked to mathematical models and finally translated into maps that can also be read on portable devices.
Joao Miguel Encarnacao, a molecular biologist, talked us through the benefits of the device, referring to one particular vineyard to support his explanation:
“So this is a map that shows the distribution of sugar in the grapes at one particular vineyard. The scale goes from green to red. Regions in green show low sugar content inside the grapes; regions in red show the areas where grapes have the highest concentration of sugar.
“In this particular case, we see that in one region there is a lower sugar concentration, so winegrowers can make a more informed decision to produce a certain type of wine. But there is also a region in the vineyard with a much higher sugar concentration, where winegrowers can decide to produce another type of wine, with more alcohol; a more vigorous and structu