Research begins on Brock professor’s “smart” cooling vest

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Deep-earth miners might be seeing a new “smart” cooling vest in the future.  Stephen Cheung, Brock University professor in the Kinesiology department and the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics, is currently partnering with Jannatec Technologies, a company committed to improving the productivity and safety of mining. The partnership will work to develop a $500,000 vest that can cool its wearer down through the use of non-invasive sensors. They began their research after obtaining a grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence.

The aim of this research is to create a technology that would aid in overall productivity within deep-earth mining. The cooling technology will help alleviate some of the costs that come with further use of an already deep mine as opposed to creating a new one due to the heat, pressure and humidity that comes with deep-earth mining.

“Deep earth mines are very expensive to run,” Cheung said. “Especially to drill into a new mine and start from scratch, so the better path right now to productivity is to extend the life of a mine by being able to go deeper.”

While there is a cooling vest already being used in many deep-earth mines, the technology itself has not greatly advanced from its original development. Current cooling vest models don’t detect body heat or adjust accordingly, and don’t apply cooling to the places that need it the most. This may apply too much cooling to one miner, not enough cooling for another, and leaves miners to decide for themselves whether they need the extra cooling or not. This is particularly dangerous as heat illness can pose a serious health risk if it goes undetected.  There are ways that mining companies protect their workers from heat illness, but much of their precautions are expensive with minimized productivity. For instance, recovery rooms that miners can regulate their core temperature take away from the overall time a miner can be working, and mass ventilation throughout the mines with large fans to stimulate air flow can be costly and need an exceedingly large amount of electricity to operate.

“I may be sitting in a digger and not really generating a lot of heat myself,” Cheung added. “While you may be operating the drill and you could be generating a lot of heat from your muscles working; right now the ventilation and cooling is exactly the same for me and you.

“It’s really almost like running a big air conditioner down at those depths; you can imagine how expensive that may be.” Cheung said.

Cheung and Jannatec Technologies aim to create “smart” cooling vests that not only detect body heat and adjust the cooling accordingly, but take in other factors as well, like where the cooling is needed most to help the body stay cool and how much physical exertion the wearer is exhibiting. Part of the idea is that the sensors they are looking to build will not only record and monitor body heat non-invasively, but will also record humidity levels and air temperature to get a more accurate read on what cooling may need to be applied.

To create a vest that applies optimal cooling where needed, much of the research will be physiological. For instance, applying cooling to some parts of the body might have a greater effect in dropping bodily temperatures than on other parts. Beyond this, human bodies differ from one another as one person might tolerate a significant increase and decrease in temperature extremely well while another might not.

“What we want to do is try to personalize the cooling so that we can alter the amount of cooling and customize it,” Cheung says. “The idea is that the vest will automatically recognize based on my bio-feedback, based on my activity levels, how much cooling I’m going to need.”

Cheung and his team hope that the “smart” cooling vest may have applications outside of the mining community as well. Any program that involves extreme heat, like military, space programs or even medical fields that involve hot lights, heavy garments, and long periods of standing would be benefitted greatly by the inclusion of this future technology.

However, when creating bleeding edge technology there is always struggles. “It’s a challenge,” Cheung pointed out. “It’s definitely not something I’m underestimating.”

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