Material Innovations Lead to Miner Protections
By Boyd Comfort, Gasket Engineering Company
Chemistry and biology are related fields, and both have benefited the mining industry over the years. As engineers look to create new products, they have to look at mechanical and structural innovations, as well as material innovations, and how those innovations can be leveraged specifically for the mining industry.
Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up with material innovations, as advancements happen all the time. That’s why it’s important for product engineers to work with experts in other fields to create product improvements on an ongoing basis. One such example is in the gas detection equipment that miners use as critical safety gear each and every day.
Detecting lethal methane gases, through the ages
Everyone knows about how miners used canaries to detect a lack of oxygen in mine shafts. This protected miners against asphyxiation, but canaries couldn’t detect the presence of potentially lethal methane gases. In the early 1900s, the flame safety lamp replaced the canary as a miner’s primary tool for detecting both a lack of oxygen as well as the presence of methane gas. The problem with this flammable method is, of course, that methane gas is highly explosive, and tragic explosions occurred all too often.
Everyone agreed that the electronic sensors that showed up in the 1970s were indeed an innovation and increased safety for the miners. These portable detection sensors monitor air quality within a chamber that then notify the wearer of the presence of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane, as well as confirming the presence of suitable levels of oxygen for the workers to do their work. These highly sophisticated sensors have integrated computer systems that provide real-time monitoring to all the necessary personnel.
Unfortunately, coal mining is a very damp and dusty business. Coal miners often work in very wet environments where they are inundated with coal dust and moisture, which can cause damage to these highly-sophisticated sensors and reduce the effectiveness of the gas monitors.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more innovation came for these devices with the creation of a material called polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE. This is a breathable mesh fabric gasket that allows air to pass through without allowing water or debris into the chamber. This improved the gas detector’s accuracy, and therefore, improved safety for the miners.
The latest innovations!
So, what are the innovations to such devices in the past 15 to 20 years? Plenty! The gas detection manufacturer has added wireless technology to allow the instruments to talk to one another. If one person’s device alarms, nearby workers’ monitors will also be activated. This important safety feature provides real-time information that can save lives.
Also, in order for these gas detectors to operate properly, the PTFE membrane filter still needs to be changed every month or so. While the filter used to be placed on the inside of the screen, it is now placed on the outside for easy replacement. These filters can also be custom cut to fit a particular instrument properly and are available in different colors (to work for different gases or for aesthetic purposes).
Increase safety by partnering with the right people
Product engineers who work with top quality material manufacturers and knowledgeable, experienced gasket companies get the kind of advice and partnering that allows such innovation to happen. This type of innovation comes from three different sources: the maker of the PTFE, the device manufacturer who is committed to increasing the efficacy of its products, and the gasket company who is aware of new materials and how those materials might best be put to work for their clients.
And why is it important that gas detector manufacturers work with an experienced gasket manufacturer? Because experienced manufacturers know and understand the chemistry of PTFE! For example, it can be a hard material to handle. It has been described as a material similar to Saran Wrap®, so getting release liners that allow for proper handling is important. Specialized gasket manufacturers are needed who are able to work effectively with the materials to create these release liners.
Innovation in product design, high tech materials like PTFE, and working with an experienced gasket manufacturer all contribute to creating and improving the life-saving equipment used by miners around the world.
About the Author
Boyd Comfort is the Director of Sales for Gasket Engineering Company, an experienced custom gasket manufacturing company that partners with suppliers and their customers to innovate within the mining industry. One of its clients, Industrial Scientific® has a strong reputation and long heritage of innovation within the mining industry, and PTFE material manufacturer CLARCOR® continues to look for ways to improve its material performance on behalf of miners throughout the world. If you’d like more information, feel free to call 816-363-8333. Photos courtesy of Industrial Scientific Corporation.