COLLEGE STATION, February 12, 2003 - A team of Texas A&M University and University of Texas researchers is working on a system that will sample mail for airborne contaminants, such as anthrax spores, and ultimately provide a reliable means of detecting biological and chemical agents sent through the mail.
"We have full-scale mail sorting machines that generate background dust - just as you would find in a real sorting facility," Dr. Andrew McFarland, Wyatt Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University, said.
As mail goes through a sorter, it moves through rollers that apply pressure to each piece. Any air or toxic substances that are in the envelope can escape and be spread on anything nearby - including other mail, the machine or the surrounding air.
McFarland's group, which is collaborating with biochemist Dr. John T. McDivitt of the University of Texas at Austin, has developed a vacuum system that is placed in the part of a machine where substances could first be released from mail. The equipment is designed to draw samples of air and pass them to a detector, which will identify and quantify both biological and chemical agents. The McDivitt laboratory is developing the detector.
Funding for the research is provided by Siemens Dematic, and they have installed two high-speed mail sorting machines at Texas A&M, which helps in the effort.
"This whole project is a very collaborative effort," said McFarland, who is also director of the Aerosol Technology Laboratory. "The process on which we are working is divided into several different areas." McFarland and his collaborators say their devices have the potential to provide an inexpensive approach for near-real-time, continuous monitoring of many biological and chemical agents. This type of system can be readily programmed as needed for the early detection of new types of threats.
The new mail-sorter collection and detection system also incorporates another technology developed by McFarland, a shrouded probe, which is a key component in monitoring the emission of airborne particles from the stacks of nuclear power plants.
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