Asbestos was, at one time, an extremely popular material because of its excellent insulating and fire-resistant properties. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too good to be true, because it was eventually discovered that asbestos is highly toxic. Exposure to it is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer, and it is now banned in multiple countries. The problem is that asbestos is already present in many buildings, particularly older ones. This especially becomes a problem when those buildings are torn down and the asbestos fibers become airborne, ready to be inhaled.
A young Australian engineer has come up with a way to test for asbestos more effectively through 3D printing and artificial intelligence. Jordan Gruber is the co-founder of Frontier Microscopy and creator of Marvin the Microscope, a microscope that was modified using 3D printing to allow it to be controlled by a computer. Gruber developed Marvin as a way to better monitor, detect and store the results of asbestos in the air on construction and demolition sites.
Marvin is a custom built robotic microscope that takes several hundred photographs across an air filter sample in under a minute. The images are then uploaded to cloud-based software, which analyzes them for the presence of asbestos.
“Asbestos materials must be respected, else asbestos fibres can become airborne and pose serious risk to workers and the general public,” said Gruber. “This is a major global health issue, particularly in construction and demolition. Our mission is to use cutting edge technology to vastly improve the testing process and reduce the risk of public harm.”
“For labs there are significant benefits, as Marvin eliminates the manual processing of dangerous minerals and screens air samples for asbestos fibres in a fraction of the time it takes humans,” said Gruber.
About a year ago, Frontier Microscopy was accepted into the inaugural SouthStart program for technology startups in South Australia. Marvin also received a positive response at the Third International Asbestos Awareness and Management Conference toward the end of last year. Gruber, a graduate of the University of Adelaide, developed Marvin after working for a while at Saab Australia.
Methods of testing for asbestos have changed very little over the last half-century, according to Gruber. Considering the harm that asbestos can do to people, it’s unacceptable for those methods to remain outdated. Although specialized microscopes can be incredibly expensive, Marvin began as an ordinary $700 microscope, modified with inexpensive 3D printed parts to become a sophisticated, effective asbestos detector. Marvin can detect asbestos six times faster than a human can, and should become commercially available in the next few months.
“I was working with Saab on self-driving vehicle technology,” Gruber said. “At the same time my brother Stephen was working on the monitoring and maintenance of asbestos. It was a meeting of minds. I think I have the confidence of being a 24-year-old engineer who goes out and tells his story. I wouldn't be where I am today if I did not have a strong belief. This is something I have built, I'll get out and back myself.”
Frontier Microscopy’s work was supported by a $50,000 grant from the South Australian Early Commercialisation Fund Program, as well as $75,000 in investments plus mentoring from SouthStart. The company also received more than $100,000 from Adelaide-based angel investors. A patent for Marvin is currently pending.
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