US RE41591 E1
A system and method for detecting contaminants in or on objects, having a movably mounted container for holding objects and having a plurality of perforations and an entrance opening through which objects may be placed into the container. A housing encloses the container and forms a barrier to ambient air. There is a sealable opening for inserting and removing objects from the container. A drive assembly moves the container within the housing to move objects therein for emitting particles which are in or on such object. There is an air stream for moving air through the housing and container to entrain any emitted particles into the air stream and a sensor for sensing contaminants in the air stream and providing a signal when a contaminant is sensed. The container can be a rotatable cage or a vibrating box. In the method, there is a chamber provided which may be sealed with respect to ambient air to create an enclosed atmosphere. A plurality of objects are loaded into or onto a perforated container disposed within the enclosed atmosphere and an air stream is created within the enclosed atmosphere. The objects are agitated to cause them to emit particles therefrom into the air stream which is tested to determine whether it contains any contaminants. If so, a signal is provided.
1. A system for detecting contaminants in or on objects, comprising:
a. a movably mounted container for holding objects and having a plurality of perforations and an entrance opening through which objects may be placed into said container;
b. a housing enclosing said container and forming a barrier to ambient air and having a sealable opening for inserting and removing objects from said container;
c. means for moving said container within the housing to move objects therein for emitting particles which are in or on such object;
d. means providing an air stream for moving air through said housing and container to entrain any emitted particles into the air stream; and
e. a sensor for sensing contaminants in the air stream and providing a signal when a contaminant is sensed.
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a neutralization assembly for injecting a contaminant neutralizer into the air stream when said sensor detects a contaminant, and said controller also controls the operation of said neutralization assembly.
15. A system as defined in
at least one real-time sensor to sense said at least one contaminant, said contaminant being selected from the group of biological particles, chemical particles, and pathogens.
16. A system as defined in
17. A method for detecting contaminants in and around objects, comprising the steps of:
a. providing a chamber which may be sealed with respect to ambient air to create an enclosed atmosphere;
b. loading a plurality of objects into or onto a perforated container disposed within the enclosed atmosphere;
c. creating an air stream within the enclosed atmosphere;
d. agitating the objects to cause the objects to emit particles therefrom into said air stream;
e. testing the air stream to determine whether it contains any contaminants; and
f. providing a signal when a contaminant is detected.
18. A method as defined in
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20. A system as defined in
The present application is a continuation-in-part of application Ser. No. 10/277,069 filed Oct. 21, 2002 for System and Method For Detecting Hazardous Materials Inside Containers, which claims the benefit of provisional application Serial No. 60/330,673 filed Oct. 26, 2001 and a continuation-in-part of application Ser. No. 10/201,169 filed Jul. 22, 2002 for Closed Loop System For Air Sampling Of Contained Mail Products, which claims the benefit of provisional application Serial No. 60/344,848 filed Dec. 31, 2001, and the entire contents of all such applications are incorporated herein by reference.
The present invention relates to a system and method for detecting hazardous materials inside articles and, more particularly, to a system and method for detecting hazardous materials inside mail.
All economies depend upon the physical shipment of materials for their functioning including the shipment of mail, merchandise, raw materials, and other goods.
In some circumstances, it is desirable to subject the goods to some type of inspection to determine the presence of hazardous or impermissible materials, including biological and chemical materials. In general, sophisticated sensing systems are known for the detection of hazardous biological and chemical materials For example, such systems can include conventional laboratory facilities as well as mobile or semi-mobile units that can automatically or semi-automatically detect the presence of the undesired substance or substances. One such vehicle-mobile system is the Joint Biological Point Detection System (JBPDS) developed for the United States military and designed to detect the presence of a number of biological pathogens. Others include sensor or detectors for hazardous chemicals, explosives, illicit drugs, radioactive particles, and other hazardous materials. These sensors can be used single, or in combinations, to detect as many types of hazardous particles or vapors as required.
Currently when there is suspicious mail, it is all bulk irradiated, as was done during the recent anthrax problem in the U.S., thereby delaying some mail for months and damaging or destroying some of the mail due to problems caused by the irradiation. For example, some of this irradiated mail becomes brittle and pieces break off.
U.S. Published Application No. US 2002/0126008 published Sep. 12, 2002 and filed Oct. 31, 2001 discloses use of sensors at various locations within a typical mail processing system to sense the presence of a harmful agent. This system is completely open to the ambient atmosphere. (The present application is based upon a provisional patent application filed Oct. 26, 2001.)
U.S. Published Application No. US 2002/0124664 published Sep. 12, 2002 and filed Feb. 1, 2002 discloses use of a mail sampling system used in a room separate from the remainder of a post office facility and in which there is an air intake fan and all outgoing air is filtered before release. Most often openings are formed in the parcels and mail for the sampling. The sampling system is said to determine whether mail is contaminated with a chemical or biological agent. (The present application is based upon a provisional patent application filed Oct. 26, 2001.)
U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,942,699 and 6,324,927 disclose a manner of collective sampling of cargo items for contaminants such as chemical residues. The cargo items are placed into a special airtight chamber and physically agitated, such as by vibration, to release particulates and vapors from the items, and bursts of high pressure air is sent into the chamber. Heated air may also be used.
U.S. Pat. No. 3,915,339 discloses use of pressurized air into a container to loosen and cause free flow of material therein move.
U.S. Pat. No. 3,998,101 discloses a method and apparatus for sampling the atmosphere in non-hermetically-sealed containers by enclosing baggage in a chamber and varying the air pressure cyclically to mix a portion of the air in the baggage with the air in the chamber and a vapor detector is used to detect the presence of explosives or drugs in the baggage.
U.S. Pat. No. 4,580,440 discloses a method of detecting a contraband substance in freight cargo in which the container is agitated to disturb particulates therein and samples are taken of the air containing such particulates. The collected particulates are heated to drive off vapors indicative of the contraband substance and the vapors are analyzed in a mass analyzer.
U.S. Pat. No. 4,718,268 discloses a method and apparatus for detecting a contraband substance in freight cargo similar to that of U.S. Pat. No. 4,580,440 mentioned above.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,841,038 discloses a remote sampling device for possibly hazardous content of a container. A hollow needle punctures the container and is used to withdraw the contents or to introduce another substance. An inert gas can be introduced into the area where the needle punctures the container.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,859,362 discloses a trace vapor detection method and device of sampling a volume of air suspected of containing drug vapors, removing particulate matter and binding vapors of the drug for further analysis. The device has sampling, filtration and vacuum port components.
U.S. Pat. No. 6,295,860 for explosive detection system and sample collecting device in which luggage enters the device and leaves the device after inspection in which a vapor leaking from the luggage is sampled by a sampling probe, negative corona discharge is used to ionize the vapor, and a mass spectrometer is used to detect the ionized vapor to determine whether or not an explosive is present.
Patent Abstracts of Japan Pub. No. 02159554 A published Dec. 12, 1988, Application No. 63313358 discloses a monitoring method of a pathogen or allergen in which a biosensor is provided near a suction port for air conditioning provided for each room of wall surface which tends to gather mold.
WO 91/09307 published Jun. 27, 1991, for Explosive Detection Screening System detects vapor or particulate emissions from explosives and other controlled substances and reports their presence and may also report the concentration. There is a sampling chamber for collection of vapors or other controlled substances and a concentration and analyzing system, and a control and data processing system for the control of the overall system. There are a number of U.S. patents in this series, including the following: U.S. Pat. Nos. 4,987,767; 5,109,691; 5,345,809; 5,465,607; and 5,585,575.
The US Postal Service has no reliable manner of determining if anthrax, or other hazardous materials, are contaminating items of mail. It is desirable to do this before mail enters sorting and distribution centers. The present invention provides a system and method for detecting hazardous materials in or on mail.
The present invention is a system and method for detecting contaminants in and around objects, including mail pieces and parcels, and may include neutralizing the environment containing the contaminants or the contaminants themselves. The system of the present invention may include, but is not limited to, a housing such as a cabinet, a perforated container or surface, an air duct subsystem, a power subsystem, a sensor subsystem, an indicator subsystem, and a controller. Optionally, the system of the present invention can include a blower subsystem and a neutralization subsystem.
The housing creates an enclosure and forms an airflow barrier between the enclosure and the outside ambient air. The housing has a housing opening for inserting and removing the object(s). When there is a container, it forms a cavity for holding the object(s). The container has a shell with a plurality of perforations, or may be made of wire in which case there are already openings, and it is rotatably mounted within the housing. The container has at least one container opening for inserting and removing the object(s). When there is a surface with openings, the objects are supported by the surface. The power subsystem, operably connected to the container, rotates the container, or shakes or agitates or vibrates the surface.
The sensor subsystem tests an air stream for contaminants. The indicator subsystem is operably connected to the sensor subsystem and provides a signal when at least one contaminant is detected.
The air duct subsystem is capable of ducting the air stream to an appropriate place within the system. In one embodiment, the air duct subsystem can duct the air stream into a perforated pipe that is mounted within the container or adjacent to the perforated surface. The perforated pipe allows the air stream to enter in one case the cavity and in the other case perforations in the surface and the perforations allow the air stream to flow through and about the articles. The air duct subsystem can receive the air stream from the enclosure and/or adjacent the perforated surface and can duct it past the sensor subsystem, optionally forced by the blower subsystem.
Current devices that could detect and safeguard against biological agents can present further problems such as introducing additional contaminants into the air sample that may cause false alarms or shorten the life span of contaminant detection devices. Some current devices are deficient in that they allow the migration of deadly contaminants to the outside environment, or they require the use of costly high efficiency particle air filters (HEPA) filters to process air before release to the outside environment.
In one type of arrangement, the unit is self-contained and is a closed loop system in which the air is recirculated and not allowed to enter the ambient atmosphere. In such a system a HEPA filter is not needed.
The air duct subsystem is capable of ducting the air stream in a closed loop throughout the system. The air duct subsystem can duct the air stream into a perforated pipe that is mounted within the container. The perforated pipe allows the air stream to enter the cavity, and the perforation(s) in the cavity allows the air stream to enter the enclosure. The air duct subsystem can receive the air stream from the enclosure and can duct it past the sensor subsystem and back through the housing into the container, optionally forced by the blower subsystem.
In another type of arrangement, the air is filtered and then released to the atmosphere.
In another embodiment, there are air inlet and outlet openings in the container which permit air to enter and to leave.
The controller sequences operations among the sensor subsystem and the power subsystem so that particles that can be emitted while the object(s) are being tumbled within the cavity when the container is rotating. The particles can pass through the perforation(s) in the container from the cavity to the housing and then are entrained with the air stream into the air duct subsystem. The air stream and particles exit the housing and are ducted past the sensor subsystem which sends a signal to the indicator subsystem if contaminant(s) is detected in the particles.
Optionally, the blower subsystem can force the air stream through the air duct subsystem. If a blower subsystem is used to force the air stream, the controller can sequence activities among the blower subsystem, the sensor subsystem, and the power subsystem. Also optionally, when contaminant(s) is detected, a neutralization mechanism can inject a conventional contaminant neutralizer such as chlorine-calcium, formalin, or lye solutions into the air stream in the air duct subsystem. If a neutralization mechanism is used, the controller can sequence activities among the neutralization mechanism, the sensor subsystem, and the power subsystem, and optionally the blower subsystem.
The method of the present invention includes the steps of loading a perforated container or surface with at least one object, enclosing the perforated container or surface within a housing, and sealing the housing. In this method, the step of sealing forms an ambient air barrier which prevents air and particles emitted from the perforated container or surface into the housing from entering the ambient air outside the housing. The method of the present invention further includes the step of rotating the perforated container or vibrating the perforated surface. Rotation of the perforated container that contains objects can serve to release particles that are on and in the objects within the perforated container into an air stream that entrains emitted particles. It also includes, in another embodiment, the step of vibrating the perforated surface to release hazardous particles that are on and in the objects within the housing. The method further includes the step of sampling the air stream that enters the housing through the perforations in the container or surface. The method includes the steps of testing for at least one contaminant and providing an indicator if at least one contaminant is detected. The method can optionally include the steps of forcing air into the rotating perforated container, which in turn is forced through the perforations into the housing or forcing air in the vicinity of the perforated vibrating surface, and introducing a neutralizing agent into the air stream if the air stream contains at least one contaminant.
The container is not filled to capacity so as to allow room for the mail to “waterfall” during rotation. The speed may be adjustable so that the mail can tumble and collide. If desired, this can be made variable using software based upon the load that is sensed by sensors which are a part of the system using such software.
In one type of system air flow is established within a container to sweep hazardous particles that are entrained in the interior air and dislodge particles from surfaces therein and sweep the particles into a sensor unit for analysis. A container may be provided with at least one wall surface, which, in one embodiment, is the floor surface, as an air distribution plenum with air-flow holes or openings therein to allow the establishment of an air flow path within the container.
During the time that the air flow pattern is established, a hazardous-materials detection sensor or sensor system is located at or otherwise introduced into the air flow pattern, preferably at or downstream of the air exit port, for a sufficient period of time to sample the flow for a plurality of undesired or hazardous materials.
The distribution plate or surface defines an air distribution plenum therebeneath and includes a plurality of holes distributed across its surface. The air flow pattern can be established by an air-moving fan located within the container or by an auxiliary piece of equipment that connects to the container through an air inlet port and air outlet port to establish a desired air recirculation flow for some period of time. Once the flow has been established, a sensor or sensors are located within the exhaust flow for some period of time sufficient to effect the detection of any undesired or hazardous materials.
The present invention advantageously provides a system and method for quickly and efficiently detecting hazardous materials inside housings while the shipped materials are contained and prior to the unloading of the housing and possible dissemination/distribution of any hazardous materials.
Other features and advantages will be apparent from the following detailed description of preferred embodiments taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings.
Previous attempts to detect hazardous materials in mail integrated the liberation device with the detection device. The present invention separates the two processes and incorporates multiple liberation modules to produce a flow of “free from contaminant” mail available for sorting. This logistic method decreases cost of detection through multi-module application of the detection instrumentation and also allows technology refreshing of instrumentation while maintaining the liberation hardware. Implementing this disclosure eliminates decontamination of sorting machinery, equipment or process, in that, contaminated mail never reaches those devices.
There is also a bank of detection instrumentation 126, which may, if desired, also include apparatus for neutralizing the hazardous material. A schematic showing of a bus of electric or signal wiring and air ducting 128 is connected between the module 118 and the instrumentation/neutralization unit 126.
System 10 of the present invention, shown diagrammatically in
In operation, perforated container 109 is rotated by power subsystem 111 while optional blower subsystem 101 forces an air stream through air duct subsystem 103. When perforated container 109 is loaded with objects, such as mail pieces and/or parcels, and rotated, any loose particles that are on or in the objects can be released and entrained in the air stream. These particles can eventually be forced into the enclosure formed by the sealed housing 107 through the perforations in perforated container 109 by the pressure of air flowing into the perforated container 109 and by the centrifugal force generated within the container. The particles can then be entrained into the air stream that is flowing into sealed housing 107 from the perforations in perforated container 109. This air stream is ducted by the air duct subsystem 103 past sensor subsystem 105 where it is tested by conventional sensor equipment, such as, for a nonlimiting example, the BIONI or Biological Aerosol Real Time Sensors manufactured by Pacific Scientific Instruments and the Biological Aerosol Warning Systems I, developed by the assignee of this application, or any cost-effective, real-time sensor for airborne biological particles or other contaminants. If contaminants are detected, indicator subsystem 113 provides an indication of the presence of contaminants. Optionally, neutralization subsystem 115 can operate cooperatively with the sensor subsystem 105 to neutralize contaminants in the air stream and also to neutralize contaminants in or on the objects bearing the contaminants. Controller 117 can sequence operations among the various subsystems, for example, activation and deactivation of the blower subsystem 101 and the power subsystem 111.
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The housing lid 21 is preferably, although not necessarily, a lift-open glass door operably connected to the housing 13 by lid hinges 48 (shown in FIG. 6). System 10 also includes conventional sensors 17 which are, in this embodiment, a particle sensor and a biological agents sensor, the complementary action of which enhances contaminant detection possibilities. The particle sensing system, illustratively the BAWS I system, is specially suited to detect particles in the 2-10 micron range favored for aerosol dispersion of biologic agents. The biological agents sensor, illustratively the BAWS III sensor, utilizes ultra-violet laser fluorescence technology to analyze captured particles for the presence of biological agents. In this embodiment, the two sensors can be coupled together by an RS-232 communications line, or any other appropriate electronic communications mechanism. The particle sensor can communicate with a controller 11 through an RF link to the RF radio network or any other suitable means of wired or wireless electronic communications. Any sensors, including but not limited to chemical, biological, and particle, can be used in the system of the present invention.
Controller 11, which can be a personal computer, a programmable logic controller, or other such device, is operably connected to interface panel 44 (shown in FIG. 5). In this embodiment, controller 11 is a personal computer with a Universal Interface Unit for connecting external sensors and an RF network radio. The personal computer of this embodiment operates under any operating system that supports the appropriate hardware and software to interface with and control the various components of the system. Application software to control system 10 is standard BAWS sensor software with upgrades as follows: (1) a new communications message format is added to accommodate information from the sensors of system 10, and (2) the software is modified for non-military use. Any application software appropriate for the sensors selected for the system can be used.
System 10 can also contain a visual indicator 15, which is an embodiment of the indicator subsystem 113, that can be color-coded to indicate contamination states. System 10 also includes a rear housing door 19 through which the operator can access the interface panel 44, but which does not allow gas exchange with the air-sealed environment of the housing 13. System 10 also can optionally include discharge handle 25 and discharge receptacle 27. (When used in a mail system, the receptacle can be any of the receptacle types presently used in mail systems.) Discharge handle 25 can be pressured manually to release objects from the container 55 (shown in
Referring primarily now to
Rear housing wall 45, along with interface panel 44, complete the rear sealed housing. Interface panel 44 is covered during operation by rear door 19 which can be operably connected to the housing 13 by rear hinges 38 and latched in place by latch 39. Shown also is a pipe of the air duct subsystem 43. This part of the piping ducts air from the housing 13 to the recirculation blower 63 (shown in FIG. 7). This embodiment recirculates the air which leaves the sensors back into the container so that air is not discharged into the atmosphere. However, in other embodiments, the air is not recirculated.
Motor sprocket 73 which drives, for example, a chain, belt, or direct drive, that acts as a container rotation means to rotate the container 55 is shown. Also shown is blower 63 which forces the air stream through the air duct subsystem 43. It can be seen that air leaving container 55 at exit port 65 passes sensor probes 61 on its way to recirculation blower 63. As long as power is supplied to the system, blower 63 forces the air stream back through interface panel 44 at air duct housing entry 75 and into container 55 at rotating coupling 71. If contamination is detected by conventional sensors 17 through air stream sampling by sensor probes 61, a signal is sent to the indicator subsystem and to controller 11 through interface panel 44.
Whereas some of the previous embodiments have related to a closed loop system, the embodiments to be described below are not usually used in a closed loop, although they could be modified to be closed loop systems.
The housing 136 has an opening, closable by a door such as is shown in
Thus, in operation, a rotating perforated cylindrical cage is provided within a sealed container into which the suspect contaminated media is placed. The cylinder is rotated through a mechanical drive. The particulates are dislodged primarily through tumbling and secondarily through centrifugal force. Dislodge particles are entrained into an air stream and pass through a detector as described above.
This allows the liberation of suspect particles through use of a rotating cage, or a vibrating surfaces with openings, to isolate the suspect particle detection prior to introduction to a document sorting process.
There are two types of rotating cage arrangements shown, although other arrangements are possible and these are just two nonlimiting examples. One type is a hex cage and the other is a basket cage. In one series of embodiments, the cages are in the form of baskets which are easy to be carried by a worker.
The operation proceeds generally as follows in one, nonlimiting example of an embodiment of the invention. Air enters 90 through an inlet and passes through a 5 micron intake air filter 92. The air flows 94 to a sealed chamber with a rotating agitator 96. The air then flows 98 to a sensor suite or particle size sensor unit 100. It leaves the suite 100 and flows 162 to a 0.3 micron HEPA exhaust air filter 164. The air exits the filter 164 and flows 166 to a blower 168, and then exits at 170.
Thus, in one aspect of the present invention there is a rotating perforated cylindrical cage provided within a sealed container into which the suspect contaminated media is placed. The cylinder is rotated through a mechanical or other type of drive. The particulates are dislodged primarily through tumbling and secondarily through centrifugal force. Dislodged particles are entrained into an air stream and pass through a detector.
In another aspect of the present invention there is a shaker table driver, or similar physical vibration source, attached to a shallow box mounted on a slight angle,, which in a nonlimiting example may be approximately 20 degrees, within a container. The suspect contaminated media contained in a hopper above the shallow box with shaker driver, passes into the lower container only by sliding over the shallow fabricated box. The shaker table drivers vibrate the box and liberate the particulates. Air flow from within the vibrating box carries away the particulates to the detector.
In a further aspect of the present invention, which is a variation of that described in the preceding paragraph, uses a corrugated top surface for the vibrating box to aid in separation of the particulates from the suspect media moving over the box.
Previous attempts to handle articles having hazardous particulates therein or thereon integrated the liberation device with the detection device. The present invention separates the two processes and incorporates multiple liberation modules to produce a flow of “free from contaminant” mail available for sorting. This logistic method decreases cost of detection through multi-module application of the detection instrumentation and also allows technology refreshing of instrumentation while maintaining the liberation hardware. Implementing this disclosure eliminates decontamination of sorting machinery, equipment or process, in that, contaminated mail never reaches those devices.
Previously proposed systems modified mail sorting equipment to integrate detection at the sorter thereby slowing or stopping the sort process if a detection occurred. If detection occurred, the sorter had to be cleaned if detection was not a false positive.
By using the present invention, there is no interruption to the mail processing if detection occurs. No cleaning of the complex sorter is needed.
It will now be apparent to those skilled in the art that other embodiments, improvements, details, and uses can be made consistent with the letter and spirit of the foregoing disclosure and within the scope of this patent, which is limited only by the following claims, construed in accordance with the patent law, including the doctrine of equivalents.