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Researchers to boost efficiency, safety with new coal dust suppression tech

Researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are leading a multidisciplinary team on a three-year project aimed at improving the efficiency of dust scrubbers in underground mining operations.

Current dust collection systems require multiple work stoppages during the day to replace and clean filters and hardware. To improve safety and efficiency, Virginia Tech researchers are working with other researchers to incorporate new materials and methods for cleaning the filters into the scrubbers.

"Scrubbers are a kind of dust filter integrated into the design of the cutter. As the machine advances, it generates a lot of its own vibrational energy. Part of what we're trying to do is to create a dust suppression system that harvests that vibrational energy to manipulate it in a way that is useful to the suppression effort," Aaron Noble, associate professor of mining and minerals engineering in the College of Engineering and the primary project investigator, said in a news release.

The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Health and Safety funded the $900,000 project. The groups are focusing on collecting respirable dust, which is material generally below 10 to 20 microns in size that can get into miners' lungs and cause a variety of lung diseases.

"Heavier dust settles in the mine, but respirable dust travels in all directions with the flow of air," Hassan Amini, a research scientist working on mining and minerals engineering at Virginia Tech, said in the news release. "Our focus for the project is to develop technology to meet demonstrable efficiency targets that allow us to catch more particles and go longer between filter changes."

The team is targeting a dust suppression system that collects more than 95% of dust particles, compared to current equipment with an efficiency of about 90%, Amini said.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration recently issued an information request seeking ways to reduce exposure to respirable quartz as the agency aims to combat an increase in severe black lung diagnoses among miners. Timothy Watkins, administrator for coal and metal/nonmetal mine safety and health, told the industry in early 2019 that further reducing exposure to respirable dust may be difficult.

"The easy ones are gone. The same thing with dust. You look at what we've done across the country to reduce respirable dust; for the most part, the easy solutions have been implemented, and now it's time we want to start looking at harder and harder, more difficult solutions to get that number down even lower than what it is," Watkins said at the West Virginia Coal Mining Symposium in February.