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New Mexico State University

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NMSU research project seeks to improve mine safety

In July 2002, the country watched anxiously as rescue crews tried to save nine miners who were trapped in a mine in Quecreek, Pa. The miners had become trapped when they accidently broke into an adjacent abandoned mine, which unleashed millions of gallons of water. Government investigators later determined that the accident was caused by the use of an inaccurate and outdated map of the mine.


A team of 12 electrical engineering students from New Mexico State University is developing some technology that could prevent this type of disaster in the future. The students are conducting their research as part of a larger contract awarded to Stolar Research Corp. of Raton by the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration. Stolar, which is headed by NMSU electrical engineering graduate Larry Stolarczyk, has a $1.4 million contract to develop two void-detection projects: a portable, hand-held look-ahead radar system for void detection in underground mines and an electromagnetic (EM) gradiometer that from the surface can identify underground structures that are at depths up to 400 feet.

The NMSU students are investigating technologies suitable for the future development of a detector that could find hidden mine shafts and estimate the distance to those voids. This would be done by sending microwaves into the areas in question.

"Signals propagate differently depending on their frequency and the media in which they are traveling," said Russell Jedlicka, an assistant professor of electrical engineering who serves as the student's advisor on this project. "Radar technologies can be used to identify if a discontinuity exists between the material you are mining and an abandoned mine that is filled with air or water."

If a discontinuity exists, the next step is to figure out whether it is 10 feet away or 100 feet away. Jedlicka said this can be done by studying the electromagnetic properties of coal.
"Coal has different electromagnetic properties, depending on where it is located and whether there is water mixed in with it," Jedlicka explained. "The students have been writing algorithms to take measurements and derive electromagnetic properties from these sets of measurements."
Jedlicka has received coal samples from mines in New Mexico and Ohio for the students to use in their research. He said he expects the student's research will add significantly to our knowledge about the electromagnetic properties of coal.

Jedlicka said a future group of students at NMSU will look into the engineering issues related to developing a user-friendly sensor that could detect a change in media such as coal to water or coal to air.