Noise-induced hearing loss

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

Every day, we experience sound in our environment, such as the sounds from television and radio, household appliances, and traffic. Normally, these sounds are at safe levels that don’t damage our hearing. But sounds can be harmful when they are too loud, even for a brief time, or when they are both loud and long-lasting. These sounds can damage sensitive structures in the inner ear and cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

NIHL can be immediate or it can take a long time to be noticeable. It can be temporary or permanent, and it can affect one ear or both ears. Even if you can’t tell that you are damaging your hearing, you could have trouble hearing in the future, such as not being able to understand other people when they talk, especially on the phone or in a noisy room. Regardless of how it might affect you, one thing is certain: noise-induced hearing loss is something you can prevent.

Who is affected by NIHL?

Exposure to harmful noise can happen at any age. People of all ages, including children, teens, young adults, and older people, can develop NIHL. Based on a 2011-2012 CDC study involving hearing tests and interviews with participants, at least 10 million adults (6 percent) in the U.S. under age 70—and perhaps as many as 40 million adults (24 percent)—have features of their hearing test that suggest hearing loss in one or both ears from exposure to loud noise. Researchers have also estimated that as many as 17 percent of teens (ages 12 to 19) have features of their hearing test suggestive of NIHL in one or both ears (Pediatrics 2011(link is external)), based on data from 2005-2006.

What causes NIHL?

NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to an intense “impulse” sound, such as an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over an extended period of time, such as noise generated in a woodworking shop.

Recreational activities that can put you at risk for NIHL include target shooting and hunting, snowmobile riding, listening to MP3 players at high volume through earbuds or headphones, playing in a band, and attending loud concerts. Harmful noises at home may come from sources including lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and woodworking tools.

Sound is measured in units called decibels. Sounds of less than 75 decibels, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. However, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for NIHL to happen.

Here are the average decibel ratings of some familiar sounds:

  • The humming of a refrigerator
    45 decibels
  • Normal conversation
    60 decibels
  • Noise from heavy city traffic
    85 decibels
  • Motorcyles
    95 decibels
  • An MP3 player at maximum volume
    105 decibels
  • Sirens
    120 decibels
  • Firecrackers and firearms
    150 decibels

Your distance from the source of the sound and the length of time you are exposed to the sound are also important factors in protecting your hearing. A good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are too loud, too close, or last too long.

Illustration showing The auditory system in the ear.Credit: NIH Medical Arts

How can noise damage our hearing?

To understand how loud noises can damage our hearing, we have to understand how we hear. Hearing depends on a series of events that change sound waves in the air into electrical signals. Our auditory nerve then carries these signals to the brain through a complex series of steps.

  1. Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.
  2. The eardrum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear. These bones are called the malleus, incus, and stapes.
  3. The bones in the middle ear couple the sound vibrations from the air to fluid vibrations in the cochlea of the inner ear, which is shaped like a snail and filled with fluid. An elastic partition runs from the beginning to the end of the cochlea, splitting it into an upper and lower part. This partition is called the basilar membrane because it serves as the base, or ground floor, on which key hearing structures sit.
  4. Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms along the basilar membrane. Hair cells—sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane—ride the wave.
  5. As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels, which are at the tips of the stereocilia, to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cell, creating an electrical signal.
  6. The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which translates it into a sound that we recognize and understand.
Photo showing Stereocilia perch atop sensory hair cells in the inner earStereocilia perch atop sensory hair cells in the inner ear
Credit: Yoshiyuki Kawashima

Most NIHL is caused by the damage and eventual death of these hair cells. Unlike bird and amphibian hair cells, human hair cells don’t grow back. They are gone for good.

What are the effects and signs of NIHL?

When you are exposed to loud noise over a long period of time, you may slowly start to lose your hearing. Because the damage from noise exposure is usually gradual, you might not notice it, or you might ignore the signs of hearing loss until they become more pronounced. Over time, sounds may become distorted or muffled, and you might find it difficult to understand other people when they talk or have to turn up the volume on the television. The damage from NIHL, combined with aging, can lead to hearing loss severe enough that you need hearing aids to magnify the sounds around you to help you hear, communicate, and participate more fully in daily activities.

NIHL can also be caused by extremely loud bursts of sound, such as gunshots or explosions, which can rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear. This kind of NIHL can be immediate and permanent.

Loud noise exposure can also cause tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head. Tinnitus may subside over time, but can sometimes continue constantly or occasionally throughout a person’s life. Hearing loss and tinnitus can occur in one or both ears.

Sometimes exposure to impulse or continuous loud noise causes a temporary hearing loss that disappears 16 to 48 hours later. Recent research suggests, however, that although the loss of hearing seems to disappear, there may be residual long-term damage to your hearing.

Can NIHL be prevented?

NIHL is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable. If you understand the hazards of noise and how to practice good hearing health, you can protect your hearing for life. Here’s how:

  • Know which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 decibels).
  • Wear earplugs or other protective devices when involved in a loud activity (activity-specific earplugs and earmuffs are available at hardware and sporting goods stores).
  • If you can’t reduce the noise or protect yourself from it, move away from it.
  • Be alert to hazardous noises in the environment.
  • Protect the ears of children who are too young to protect their own.
  • Make family, friends, and colleagues aware of the hazards of noise.
  • Have your hearing tested if you think you might have hearing loss.

What research is being done on NIHL?

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) supports research on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of hearing loss. NIDCD-supported researchers have helped to identify some of the many genes important for hair-cell development and function and are using this knowledge to explore new treatments for hearing loss.

Researchers are also looking at the protective properties of supporting cells in the inner ear, which appear to be capable of lessening the damage to sensory hair cells upon exposure to noise.

The NIDCD sponsors It’s a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing®, a national public education campaign to increase awareness among parents of preteens about the causes and prevention of NIHL. Armed with this information, parents, teachers, school nurses, and other adults can encourage children to adopt healthy hearing habits.

Source NIDCD

Thanks for reading and take care of your ears!

Dust Monitoring Equipment – providing equipment, services and training in dust fallout management to the mining industry.


What should I do after breathing in a lot of dust

Some of the answers to this question found on Quora

“This is an excellent question and the answer to it will vary depending on what type of dust you have breathed in.  The truth be told, we all breathe in lots of dust everyday.  Most dust will be filtered out by the hairs and mucus lining in your nose.

However, dust that is inhaled from asbestos or fiberglass is another matter entirely.  In this case, a trip to the hospital is imperative and without delay.  Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestos being inhaled but doctors may prescribe breathing treatments and medication to help with the symptoms.  This is why companies exist where employees have the equipment and training to remove these materials safely.

Working with wood and drywall can be dangerous because of the dust these material can create.  Always wear a dust mask to prevent dust inhalation.  Extended periods of breathing in the dust will potentially cause lung problems.

That being said if you breathe in too much dust from cleaning a dirty room you may begin to sneeze and/or cough which is your body’s attempt to remove the dust.  If you went beyond what the body can expel by sneezing and/or coughing you usually will experience a sore throat.  When this happens drinking a cool glass of water will help to flush your throat.  Sometimes a cough drop will help the throat to recover faster.

If breathing in a lot of dust around your home is a concern for you why not hire a professional cleaning company to clean your home and let them handle the dust.”


“Healthy lungs constantly make mucus and we constantly clear our airways for precisely this sort of situation: dust particles get trapped in the mucus and we cough it up and out. Of course, we also (usually) breathe through our noses which have tiny hairs in them which clean the air we breathe, trapping a lot of the particulate matter. Our noses also warm and moisturize the air we breathe, which helps particles become caught. Between the two mechanisms, a lot of the air we breathe is substantially cleaner, once it gets to our lungs; if it isn’t, it gets coughed up and out over time. When we smoke, our lungs try mightily to keep up with the amount of nastiness that we inhale, but with the carbon monoxide, the heat, and the tar in cigarettes, they simply can’t keep up, and become damaged. Over time, once one quits smoking, the lungs are able to renew themselves and we cough out a lot of the crap. Probably the best thing you can do after breathing a lot of dust would be to get yourself to the cleanest air you can find, bearing in mind that air-conditioned air is usually cleaner than outside air. Stay there for as long as you can – sleep there, if possible!  There’s really not a lot else you CAN do.”


“Immediately, put all the clothes you were wearing into the wash. Then have a thorough shower, with particular attention to washing your hair. If you feel at all sick or otherwise “unusual”, drink a large glass of milk.

Expect to cough, and encourage it: spit out what you cough up, do not swallow it.

While you are doing all this, think about the dust. If it was from asbestos, any other unidentified building insulant, sawdust, or any insoluble mineral dust such as from mica, stone-cutting, or metallic dust, go to your nearest hospital immediately. If possible, take a sample of the dust with you.

Finally, don’t do it again: a dust mask is cheap, and life isn’t.”


“If you find yourself coughing, let it happen. Drink lots of water/fluid  so that your body can hydrate your secretions well. I think that you  should be able to clear the material in a day or two, if it isn’t too  bad.

The  little hairs in your airways and nose will be busy clearing all the junk  out of your lungs. If you blow your nose and see strange material, it  may be from what you breathed in. The material in your lungs should get  out of your lungs and be swallowed naturally, as normal.”

Dust Monitoring Equipment – providing equipment, services and training in dust fallout management to the mining industry.


Fitting Foam Earplugs

Specific Gravity of Fallout Dust Pycnometer Method

Determination of Specific Gravity of Fallout dust Pycnometer method with reference to ASTM D854-2.


Specific gravity (Gs) of a solid substance is the ratio of the weight of a given volume of material to the weight of an equal volume of water. In effect, it tells us how much heavier (or lighter) the material is than water. For exact analysis, the specifications require distilled or de-mineralized water.  Soil’s specific gravity largely depends on the density of the minerals making up the individual soil particles.  Two specific gravity readings were obtained from the one sample and the average has been used to provide the specific gravity of the sample.


2.1 Apparatus Used for Determining Specific Gravity:

Pycnometer (10millimetre capacity), Mortar and pestle, laboratory Oven, Heat resistant gloves, Stirring spatula, Distilled water, Desiccator, Thermometer. Balance scale sensitive to 0.01 gram

2.2 Sample Preparation.

Fallout dust was oven dried using a laboratory oven for 6 hours. Fallout dust was placed on a desiccator for 60 minutes to cool. Desiccator was used to prevent loss and dilution of fallout dust material. Cooled dried sample materials were broken down using mortar and pestle.

2.3 Determination of Specific Gravity

Specific gravity of the fallout dust was determined in the laboratory using a pycnometer method with reference to ASTM D854-2 using de-ionized water at 20 ⁰C. A 10 ml pycnometer was filled with water to the meniscus and the mass of the pycnometer filled with deionised water was determined denoted by the variable Ma.  Exactly
3.4 ml of water was withdrawn from the pycnometer to make space for the dust, the pycnometer was left with 6.6 ml of water and about 2 g (Mo) of dust was added to the 6.6 ml water in the pycnometer. The pycnometer was closed with 6.6 ml of deionized water and about 2 g of dust was gently rolled on a smooth table for about 10 minutes to remove air bubbles.  Water in the pycnometer was filled to meniscus again while making sure that no dust materials were stuck on the neck of the pycnometer.  Mass of the pycnometer that was filled with water and fallout dust sample (Mb) was recorded after 12 hours of curing.  Specific gravity of the dust samples was computed using the following formula.

Gs = ___Mo.K_______
Mo + (Ma – Mb)

Where:       Gs = Specific Gravity

Mo = Mass of Oven Dried fallout dust Materials (g)

K   = Temperature correction factor (of which at 20 ⁰C =1)

Ma = Mass of the pycnometer filled with De-ionized water (g)

Mb = Mass of the pycnometer filled with water and fallout dust sample (g)


Figure 1: apparatus used for determining specific gravity; (A) laboratory oven for drying the fallout dust, (B) Desiccator for cooling the samples, (C) Mortar and pestle for breaking down the dust sample lumps with pycnometers, (D) Mili-Q de-ionised water generator, (E) Scale balance for determining the weight.



The results were recorded in a spreadsheet and summarised (Table 1)

Table 1: Specific Gravity of the Samples (Generic Results)

Sample I.D Mo( g) Ma(g) Mb(g) Gs
1SPA 2.00 22.34 23.59 2.67
2SPB 2.00 22.34 23.60 2.70
Average Gs 2.69


Specific gravity of the dust samples was determined as shown in Table 1.  Specific gravity of the dust sample was found to be 2.72 times that of water.  The fallout dust materials were denser than water.  Since the Specific gravity was determined at 20 ⁰C, the temperature did not have effect on the determined Specific gravity since its correction factor (K) is equal to 1 as supported by the table below:












Pycnometers filled with de-ionised water and fallout dust materials

Lutendo (DustWatch geology consultant) crushing dust using pebble and mortar

Specific Gravity of Fallout Dust Pycnometer Method

Gerry F. Kuhn (FMVS, MSAIOH, Grad SE) Chris Loans
(BSc Chemical Engineer, Pr Eng)
Cape Town, Doc Number:  0617291001  Date:  29-Jun-17


Dust Monitoring Training Course


DustWatch cc ( is in a battle to combat dust hazards.

In response to that we conduct numerous fallout dust monitoring training courses in Cape Town and Pretoria, South Africa. At the end of the course, trainees receive certificates of recognition to acknowledge the skills they acquired during the training.

Previously DustWatch cc was at Greenmined Environmental – office 36 Baker Square Block One, De Beers, Paardvlei, Somerset West, Cape Town, South Africa.  DustWatch cc conducted a 3 day training course from the 13th of June to the 15th of June 2017.

Greenmined Environmental Consultancy is a company based in Cape Town that offers environmental services including Environmental Impact Management and ECO Services, Legal Audits, Mine Impact Management (Mine Administration/Permit and Rights Applications / Environmental Closure Plan), Water Management- Authorisation Applications & Compliance, Water & Dust Monitoring and GIS Support.

Three (3) training courses have been conducted this year – two in Pretoria and one in Cape Town . A total of 4 personnel attended the training: Muechellin, Jemma, Vuyo and Sibusiswe.
Sibusiswe and Vuyo attended the training at no cost as they are students taken in as part of a mentoring program.







 Figure 1: Trainees who attended the fallout dust monitoring course









Figure 2: Table of trainees









Figure 3: Mr. Chris Loans (Director of DustWatch cc) excited to deliver the content, with Vuyo filtering dust.

Summary of the training from the 13th June – 15th of June is as follows:

The training kick-started on Tuesday 13th of June 2017 with theoretical presentation by Mr. Christopher Loans (Managing Director of DustWatch cc). The theory was about fallout dust and how to collect it, Settling Velocity and shape of dust particles, Calculating fallout dust monitoring results, trace elements analysis, as well as South African Legislation interpretation.

Wednesday the 14th of June 2017 was a practical day where trainees practiced changing DustWatch Buckets units, Basic Operational Use of the DustWatch Units, Filtering water from the buckets and collecting dust on filters for further analysis.









Figure 3: DustWatch Single Bucket Unit used for dust fallout collection.

The last day, Thursday the 15th of June was about learning to write Fallout Dust Reports and laboratorial procedures for data capture. An assessment test was written and all trainees passed with excellent results.

 Gallery of the training

Dust Monitoring Training Course







Mentored students excited in the training








Greenmined Environmental contact details








Trainees writing the assessment test

DustWatch CC – Precipitant Dust Monitoring
082 875 0209 or 021 789 0847 (Chris)
083 308 4764 (Gerry)
0866 181 421 (Fax)

Please do not hesitate to contact me regarding any queries.

Chris Loans

What should I do after breathing in a lot of dust?

This is an excellent question and the answer to it will vary depending on what type of dust you have breathed in.  The truth be told, we all breathe in lots of dust everyday.  Most dust will be filtered out by the hairs and mucus lining in your nose.

What should I do after breathing in a lot of dust?

However, dust that is inhaled from asbestos or fiberglass is another matter entirely.  In this case, a trip to the hospital is imperative and without delay.  Unfortunately, there is no cure for asbestos being inhaled but doctors may prescribe breathing treatments and medication to help with the symptoms.  This is why companies exist where employees have the equipment and training to remove these materials safely.

Working with wood and drywall can be dangerous because of the dust these material can create.  Always wear a dust mask to prevent dust inhalation.  Extended periods of breathing in the dust will potentially cause lung problems.

That being said if you breathe in too much dust from cleaning a dirty room you may begin to sneeze and/or cough which is your body’s attempt to remove the dust.  If you went beyond what the body can expel by sneezing and/or coughing you usually will experience a sore throat.  When this happens drinking a cool glass of water will help to flush your throat.  Sometimes a cough drop will help the throat to recover faster.

If breathing in a lot of dust around your home is a concern for you why not hire a professional cleaning company to clean your home and let them handle the dust.

For more answers go to –

How To Clean Your Lungs

How often does the question ‘how to clean your lungs’ pop up? Not very often: even if it is a very important one. What is a lung cleanse? It involves a process that rids the pulmonary system of toxins. Unhealthy habits such as smoking and spending long periods in a polluted atmosphere can lead to the build up of toxins in the lungs. The lungs use their natural protective mechanism to shield the pulmonary system from these toxins by increasing the mucus cover. People like you who work in a dusty environment, those who live in extremely polluted cities and ex-smokers should definitely be asking the question how to clean your lungs?

Lung cleansing not only helps in detoxifying the pulmonary system, but also balances blood pressure, improves digestion and strengthens the body immunity system. Natural lung cleanse is very simple to follow. Simply breathing fresh air can help cleaning your lungs. If you are cooped up indoors, either at home or at your workplace, get out and get a dose of fresh air. If working in a dusty and polluted environment is unavoidable, try making frequent trips to a nearby place where you can breathe relatively clean air.

An effective way to get healthy lungs is practicing some form of sport or exercise. Cardiovascular exercises are great lung cleansing exercises.You can start with a thirty minute brisk walk and slowly increase your walking speed. If you have no physical complications such as a back or knee problem, then you can even try jogging and running. Cycling is also a good cardiovascular exercise.Swimming is also a great way to improve your respiratory capacity.

After your exercise, try and have a hot water bath. If you have access to a steam room or a sauna use it at least a few times a week for about 15 to 20 minutes. Doing these will stimulate perspiration and will help cleaning your lungs and pulmonary tract. To your lung detox exercise routine you can also add breathing exercises that strengthen your lungs. For instance, Pranayam which is a technique of breathing in yoga can go a long way in keeping your lungs healthy.

There are several home remedies for lungs Garlic and Lime being the simplest and ready accessible off the shelf in your very own kitchen and they should be consumed in small quantities every day. However, natural colon cleansing is recommended before starting the lung detox. For example, having natural herbal laxatives are beneficial. A tea with laxative properties can be consumed the night before you start your lung cleansing procedure. It is important to get rid of any kind of blockages such as constipation the body is suffering from before starting the process.

A natural colon cleansing diet is advised as well. This diet is rich in fiber. Foods such as apples, bananas, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits and seed have high fiber content. The daily dose of fiber for an adult should ideally be around 40 grams. Similarly, drinking at least 2 liters of water daily would help in natural colon cleansing at home.

Some natural lung cleansers are grapefruit juice, carrot juice, potassium, ginger, peppermint and cranberry juice. Many of these are foods that help the proper digestion of alkalizing foods which in turn improve the functioning of the lungs. Lime juice can be had on an empty stomach as soon as you wake up. Next, you can have grapefruit juice with your breakfast. For your mid-morning snack have a tall glass of carrot juice. Carrot juice is high in beta-carotene which is transformed into Vitamin A. This gives a boost to your respiratory system. For lunch, try and have a good dose of potassium. Potassium is a good detox agent for the body. It can be found in green leafy vegetables and carrots. Finally before hitting the pillow cranberry juice can be had. This juice is known to cleanse the urine and blood and is has excellent antioxidant properties. These are the different lung cleansing foods that can be had on a regular basis and more so when you want to follow a lung cleasing schedule.

Similarly lung detoxification can be done with different herbs. Rosemary, Mullein, Lobeia, Black Cumin, Honeysuckle and Chrysanthemum are the most well known lung detox herbs. The consumption of these herbs however should not be done in a haphazard manner, since some of them can be harmful to the body in case of an overdose such as Lobelia. These herbs are essentially lung supporting..

Lung detox teas made from different herbs are also easily available. There is also tea for lung cleansing that is known to relieve congestion in the respiratory tract as also deal with bronchitis and colds. This will help soothe the irritated passages of the bronchial tubes and also clear the excess mucus in the lungs. Vitamin D is the supposedly the best lung detox vitamin. This is the same vitamin that is lacking in smokers.

If you want to follow a lung detox diet along with other home remedies, have a lot of cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprout and broccoli. Also eat those foods which are rich in beta carotene such as carrots, beetroot and sweet potatoes. High antioxidant foods should also be added to your diet; for instance, grapes, green tea and almonds. Foods rich in sulfur such as watercress and foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, organic butter and eggs must also be had in sufficient quantities.These natural lung remedies go a long way in safeguarding your pulmonary well-being.

As for a lung cleanse for smokers, the best option would be to give-up smoking completely. In non-smokers the lungs detoxify themselves naturally with the help of cilia which are minute hair-like particles that act like filter in the lungs. In case of smokers, the cilia get damaged over time. A natural lung cleanse for smokers merely signifies a lifestyle change.

How to clean your lungs after quitting smoking? When considering methods on how to clean your lungs after smoking, remember exercise is the key. Regular exercise, a well-balanced diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, fiber and beta carotene and a will to never take up smoking again can help restore the health of your lungs.

How To Clean Your Lungs

Read more answers at –

Dust Monitoring Equipment – providing equipment, services and training in dust fallout management to the mining industry.

Regards, Chris Loans

Morphological changes of dust particles

Real-time evidence of morphological changes of dust particles due to internal mixing with pollution

Frequent occurrence of both anthropogenic pollution and natural dust in East Asia has great impact on regional air quality, human health and climate. Until now, their interaction and consequent effect on dust morphology remain statistically unclear, because even though the traditional filter-based bulk sampling method can provide accurate chemical compounds, it cannot distinguish the mixing state of chemicals with dust particles.

“Single-particle inspection using electro-microscopy can identify coated/contaminated dust particles,” says Dr. PAN Xiaole from Institute of Atmospheric Physics, “but real-time measurement on the morphological variation of dust particles was difficult due to labor-intensive manual operations.” In a recently published paper in Scientific Reports, PAN and his collaborators from China and Japan investigated polarization of the oscillation direction of the back-scattering signal of single dust particles online using a newly developed bench-top optical particle counter.

A real-time decrease in Asian dust depolarization was observed in North China for the first time. PAN reckons that it can only be caused by the decrease in the particle aspect ratio, which was reflected by the coating of an air pollutant, such as the deliquescent dust-nitrate Ca(NO3)2. “This phenomenon was obvious when the dust particles were stagnant in a polluted region with a high relative humidity condition,” says PAN. The statistics highlight the significant importance of internally mixed “quasi-spherical” Asian dust particles, which were more hygroscopic and likely to act as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN).

Because the NOx emission in East Asia has been rapidly increasing over the last decade, their findings imply that nitrate has become increasingly important on the morphological change of Asian dust and its subsequent spatial allocation.

“Nitrate plays a leading role in regional climate change,” PAN concludes. He adds, “Many processes associated with the direct/indirect effects of dust-nitrate are still insufficiently understood, and this requires more attention from the public and poses another challenge for the observation and modeling communities.”

Their findings have been published and online in Scientific Reports.

Morphological changes of dust particles

Read more at:

I trust you found this article on Morphological changes of dust particles interesting!  Enjoy your day!

Dust Monitoring Equipment – providing equipment, services and training in dust fallout management to the mining industry.

An energy-efficient cleaning robot

State-of-the-art solar cells are efficient – but are even more so when they are kept clean. A cleaning robot developed by Norwegian researchers enables solar panels to deliver at full capacity.
An energy-efficient cleaning robot

At a solar energy farm just outside Budapest in Hungary, a cleaning robot is industriously getting on with today’s task. Hundreds of square metres of solar panels are waiting to be cleaned – as quickly and effectively as possible. And without the use of chemicals or any unwanted discharges to the natural environment. The robot is the result of a joint project between Norwegian researchers and the Hungarian company ProDSP Technology.

“It’s a well known fact that solar panels work more efficiently when they’re clean,” says SINTEF researcher and Project Manager Martin Bellmann who, in his day-to-day work, develops what is known as sustainable energy technology. “But what’s new here is that we’ve developed a robot to do the job. This means that the solar are cleaned both quickly and efficiently with as little as possible wear and tear or environmental impact,” he says.

There’s dirt and there’s dirt

Cleaning solar cells using a robot may sound like a straightforward job – but there’s dirt and there’s dirt. And when a solar farm covering several square kilometres is being cleaned, no chemicals can be used, and there must be no damage to the natural environment. So how do we get to grips with a challenge like this?

Solar cell researcher Birgit Ryningen is examining a set of glass plates in SINTEF’s Daylight Laboratory. They are all contaminated to order, but in different degrees.

The reason is that the dirt in question has been precisely applied. These plates will now be studied in detail by researchers in order to provide answers about how much the contamination occludes sunlight. This is the final phase of the project.

There really are all kinds of dirt. “The degree to which dust particles and contamination affects solar cells is very location-dependent,” explains Ryningen.

At the start of the project she carried out a literature study to find out how such dirt affected its surroundings, only to find out that existing research focusing on air pollution and dust particles had for the most part been directed on the human body. However, she did find examples of research into the ways in which sand storms impact on solar cells installed in the Middle East. In other words, more research was needed in order to provide scientists with more details about this subject.

“We’ve seen that some dust particles absorb light while others reflect it,” says Ryningen. “And small particles reflect more light than larger ones, whereas some scale contamination is biological and acts as a kind of ‘sun factor’,” she says. And some scale coatings are thicker than others.

However, what they all have in common is that they must be removed in order for the solar cells to function optimally according to specifications. For this reason, the researchers have developed a cleaning approach that is both fast and sensitive, as well as being environmentally-friendly. And which can deal with all the different types of contamination we encounter.

Cleaning is part of normal operations

The Norwegian company Scatec Solar constructs, owns, operates and maintains solar energy farms in many countries, including the Czech Republic, South Africa, Rwanda, Honduras and Jordan. Last year, the company’s sites generated as much as 791 GWh. This is equivalent to the consumption of 200,000 average EU households.

Project Manager Caroline Sissener at Scatec Solar describes the Norwegian researchers’ solution as interesting, especially for solar energy farms located in the Middle East.

“Cleaning is part of standard operational procedures at our solar energy farms, where equipment is cleaned at least once or twice a year on order to avoid soiling. This involves the removal of everything from sand to bird droppings ,” she says. “But cleaning frequency is location-dependent. If a farm is located in a desert environment, the panels will require more frequent cleaning because the solar cells become covered with soil and sand,” says Sissener.

She goes on to say that Scatec Solar often employs manual cleaning methods because these are effective and inexpensive, but that the company also uses automated systems.

“Cleaning robots may offer a relevant and attractive solution for solar energy parks located in areas where frequent cleaning is required,” says Sissener.

She also informs us that manual methods are important to Scatec in some situations because they provide local jobs. The method chosen is assessed on a case-by-case basis, and environmental factors such as water shortages and neighbouring agricultural activity are also taken into account.

Robot arm and micro-showers

The robot cleaner currently in SINTEF’s laboratory has undergone a range of tests. Researchers have experimented with a variety of micro cleaning pads, chemicals and air pressure application approaches – all tested, of course, on different types of soiling.

“It is vitally important that we don’t discharge chemical pollutants into the environment,” explains Ryningen. “So we’ve rejected the use of traditional cleaning agents and have ended up using unbelievably small micro-droplets of water that are “sprayed” onto the glass, almost as a vapour. Then the robot uses a micro cleaning pad that effectively removes the contaminant particles.

Because solar cells can be exposed to wear and tear, researchers have also been working hard to develop methods of controlling the pressure exerted by the robot’s cleaning arm.

“It is vital that the robot doesn’t scratch the sensitive glass surface. Even small scratches can reduce the efficiency of the solar cells,” explains Ryningen, adding that “in theory, this should work on windows as well, which will open up a broader market for us,” she says.

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Negev desert solar field uses water-free robotic cleaning system

At large solar plants, keeping surfaces of solar panels free from dust and sand is not just a matter of good housekeeping but of whether or not the plants can really make a difference to the communities they want to serve. In other words, keeping the panels clean especially in very dry areas may be a matter of solar plant effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Solar plant panels in deserts collect large quantities of dust. Recently, a solar park in Israel was provided with an answer to the problem.

The 20-acre Ketura Sun Solar Park in the Negev Desert (located in the hot southern stretch, which suffers from sandstorms and little rain) was introduced to a robotic cleaning process from an Israel-based company, Ecoppia. No water is needed for the cleanups. Instead, each night (cleaning typically takes place during the early hours of dark) 100 centrally controlled E4 robots, as they are called, go to work on the panels using microfibers and controlled air flow to push dirt off panels. The robots use gravitation to move the dust particles downwards and off the panels. They move along a rigid aluminum frame with wheels coated with polyurethane; there is no load on the solar panels’ surface.

Ecoppia designed the system to be water-free and energy-efficient. When not cleaning, the robots are locked to a docking station outside of the solar PV row. While docking, robot batteries are charged through their solar panel. The fleet can be remotely managed from a dashboard or mobile app.

Before the latest robotic cleaning process, Ketura Sun’s solar panels were only cleaned about nine times a year, in consideration of the expense involved in a labor-intensive, water-based cleaning process. Manual panel cleaning could take up to five days. As a result operations worked suboptimally and in the interim between cleaning cycles the park suffered electricity production degradation due to “soiling,” the term used to describe the accumulation of dirt and dust on photovoltaic solar panel surfaces.

Ecoppia, founded in 2013, is in the business of photovoltaic solar panel cleaning solutions The Ketura Sun solar park is jointly owned by Siemens AG and solar energy pioneer Arava Power. Founded in 2006, Arava Power has seven solar parks in production or development across the Negev, with a total production capacity of 80 MW. In 2009, Siemens AG acquired a 40 percent stake in Arava Power.

The park’s robot cleaning crew is yet another marker of interest by the solar industry in improved techniques for keeping panels clean and efficient. Last November, a Tokyo-based company, Sinfonia Technology, announced it developed a robot with camera and sensors that can move autonomously and clean solar panels at large-scale solar power plants. Its robot had another approach, with equipment including scrub brush, wiper and detergent; and sprinkling water stored in its tank.

Also in November, US-based SunPower announced the acquisition of Greenbotics, a company with panel cleaning products for large-scale solar power plants.

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