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Young Design Engineer Solves Asbestos Removal Problems with Robot

The U.S. Dept. of Energy is looking for a way to slash costs and safeguard workers during asbestos removal, and PipeTaz–a system to remove asbestos from pipes designed by 28-year-old engineer Rob Fuchs–could be the solution.

Fuchs, lead design engineer at Automatika Inc., is responsible for the structural design of PipeTaz, a machine to protect workers from inhaling harmful fibers during the demolition of structures. The firm claims it can significantly reduce disposal costs by decreasing the volume of waste by 40 to 60% and weight by 90%.

"Right now, when an asbestos abatement company disposes of pipes covered in asbestos they have to dispose of the entire pipe, so they use waste burial containers," he says. The containers get heavy very quickly, and can't be filled to capacity. You aren't maximizing your space. So what we do is take the pipe, run it through PipeTaz, strip the asbestos from the pipe and in the end you're left with a bag of asbestos that can be disposed of through burial or chemical/heat treatment, and a pipe that can be recycled."

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Fuchs was hired part-time by CMU's Robotics Engineering Consortium during his junior year after a friend noticed his homemade entertainment center made of two steel C-channels lag-bolted to the concrete wall of his dorm room supporting plexiglass shelves.

After graduating from CMU with a civil engineering degree, Fuchs joined Automatika and has been involved in developing reconnaissance robots for use in firefighting, police, explosive-ordinance disposal and counter-terrorism in addition to his work with asbestos abatement robots.

With two rounds of funding totaling $848,700 through DOE's Small Business Innovation Research, Fuchs and his five teammates are nearing completion of assembly for PipeTaz and plan to wrap up the testing phase by this summer.

The device consists of cutting chamber flanked by a set of end supports, which hold each section of pipe and move it into and out of the chamber. The machine uses mechanical cutters and 3,000 psi high-pressure water jets to remove asbestos lagging and insulation off the pipes. Pipe of 1 to 12 in. in diameter can be placed on the support frame and advanced into the cutting chamber.

Three axial cutters and one radial cutter made up of 4-in. diamond-coated grinding discs strip the pipes of harmful insulation. The axial cutters swing down, cutting the insulation along the pipe, and then swing out. The pipe then is mechanically rotated for the radial cut and the last inch of asbestos is removed by the high- pressure water cutters that are lined up to cut the groove provided by the cutter disc.

Once the hazardous material is cut from the pipe, the diced-up pieces are vacuum-conveyed through a waste-hose to a water separator. An encapsulant is sprayed by hand onto the freshly cleaned pipe, to ensure that any last bits of asbestos remain on the pipe until it is recycled. Water is filtered and re-used. A HEPA-vacuum pump provides for positive airflow, vacuum and waste-transport. An integral PLC--Programmable Logic Controller--controls all sequenced operations and a control panel with touch screen and control knobs provides feedback to the operator.

"There will be a few months of testing," says Fuchs. "Testing will begin on simulant pieces of pipe covered in CalSil [calcium silicate insulation], which acts a lot like asbestos, but without the harmful health side effects. During this time, we will be monitoring to ensure everything is working and making any modifications."


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