Q&A Series #30: Interview with Francois Velge

Real-time diesel particulate monitoring - GRT Q&A with Francois Velge

About the guest

As the founder and Managing Director of Pinssar, Francois Velge leads the ongoing product research and development team that developed one of the world’s first real-time diesel particle monitoring systems. He brings a broad range of experience, gained during a diverse professional career, from managing a 3,000 hectare cereal farm to completing a Master’s Degree in Agribusiness and Agricultural Business Operations to working as the Project Director at leading clean technology company Peak 3, to his role at Pinssar. He developed Pinssar, an innovative DPM (Diesel Particulate Matter) monitoring system in 2014, so it can be customised for any workplace and environment where diesel engine exhaust emissions present a serious health threat. This capability has followed years of ongoing research and development, and detailed assessment and understanding of site conditions. DPM is a serious and growing concern for personnel working in confined and insufficiently ventilated spaces, where diesel engines expel dangerous, carcinogenic exhaust emissions. Built to withstand the harshest of operational conditions, Pinssar’s DPM monitoring system helps companies protect the welfare of their workers by providing accurate data about working conditions. Their revolutionary product is already operating in sites across USA, Canada, France, England, Chile, South Africa and Australia and we are currently working with even more companies across the world to ensure the welfare of their workers is protected.

The topic of discussion: Real-time diesel particulate monitoring 

Pinssar is an innovative Australian company with global reach, who have created a world-leading real-time diesel particulate matter (DPM) monitoring system – reader and dashboard system.

DPM is often the critical contaminant to monitor in relation to maintaining air quality, therefore, its real-time monitoring integration into a monitoring system is necessary to effectively initiate engineering control measures

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers DPM to be a group 1 human carcinogen. The unique nature of diesel particulates, which have a large surface area can further absorb toxins, ad include mutagenic and carcinogenic compounds such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons.  

DPM is a serious and growing concern for personnel working in confined and insufficiently ventilated spaces, where diesel engines expel dangerous, carcinogenic exhaust emissions. Built to withstand the harshest of operational conditions, Pinssar’s DPM monitor helps companies protect the welfare of their workers by providing accurate data about working conditions

A first of its kind, the Pinssar DPM monitoring system can be customised for any workplace and environment, from tunnels, underground mines, ships, oil rigs, maintenance workshops or any confined space environment where diesel engine exhaust emissions present a serious health threat to workers.

Global Road Technology caught up with Francois Velge, Managing Director of Pinssar to discuss and get insights on real-time diesel particulate monitoring. Francois is based in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 

1. Can you tell us more about Pinssar and its contributions to diesel particulate matter (DPM) monitoring and innovations in underground mining? 

The Pinssar Continuous Real-Time DPM Monitoring System was built inhouse from the ground up and consists of two parts. The Hardware and the Software / Communications. The development of the DPR was essentially performed in Brisbane under the supervision of Peter Knott. The Pinssar Diesel Particulate Reader (DPR) is the hardware of the system. It consists of a monitor that is placed in situ. The DPR is intended to be a fixed position reader (like dust) so that it can continuously measure the quality of the air in a certain area. The positioning of the DPR is generally decided by the vent officer in collaboration with the site OH&S (especially if this person is an industrial hygienist) and Pinssar and their advisors (if required). The sensor technology is laser light scattering photometry (LLSP) which has been used in other instrumentation and is a recognised technology for this type of application. The instrument uses an 800nm sharp-cut cyclone this drastically reduces the necessity for frequent maintenance.
Particles are conditioned to reduce moisture interference before being measured. Post sampling there is a flushing process that will re-zero the instrument after each sample. This overcomes the problem of manual daily re-zeroing.

The DPR has an onboard PCU that controls the operation of the DPR independently. The communication is a multi-protocol router that uses either Ethernet or Wi-Fi and uses Modbus language which is compatible with most Scada systems. Data is also stored internally on a CSV-card. The Pinssar Dashboard was specifically designed to deal with the difficulties of understanding how to view DPM data. The Pinssar Continuous DPM Monitoring System was always intended to fill the gap in the existing DPM monitoring programs. Intentionally the data collection moved away from specific personal monitoring and tailpipe vehicle monitoring to understand the DPM trends and use the data to prevent exceedances and assist the ventilation officers understanding their controls – in real-time. The existing technologies did not assist the ventilation officers or site management with understanding the quality of the air in situ. Most dashboards tend to display the data in dynamic view. The Pinssar Dashboard has two views the dynamic view as well as the rolling shift average. The rolling average is a more relevant view for the ventilation officer to make sure that the controls that are in place minimise exposure to workers as well as looking at trends over time, by shift, day, week, month etc.

The raw data can be sent to Scada systems and the dashboard server above ground. The dashboard data can be viewed either via laptop/desktop/tablet or mobile phone as well as clients various SCADA and or third-party dashboard offerings. This gives flexibility to the personnel in charge in understanding the trends and how specific tasks might affect their controls and adjust accordingly if needed. This in turn will give the employees confidence that their work environment is being monitored 24/7 to avoid being exposed to DPM exceedances.

2. What is the role of data in DPM monitoring and achieving net-zero emissions? 

Interesting question and yet again another unintentional positive outcome of monitoring DPM 24/7. There were many reasons Pinssar decided that continuous monitoring was the only way forward with a Group1 carcinogen. The background of the developers was in underground mining. Throughout the years we had collected thousands of samples – personal, vehicle emission etc all these samples were random. Therefor very few of these samples were of any use when trying to reduce DPM in situ.

When reviewing potential benefits of the Pinssar continuous DPM monitoring system we focussed on health and financial returns. Early days we identified substantial savings on electricity and diesel consumptions. By optimising the efficiencies on ventilation and vehicle maintenance clients would see / track significant reductions in fuel consumption and electricity – by linking their DPF lives and ventilation usage to real world air quality data. Lately the discussions around licence to mine has accelerated to the point where it has become obvious that unless there is a measurable plan towards decarbonisation of the operation the future of the project might be in jeopardy.

By continuously understanding the quality of the air pertaining to DPM by default there will be a reduction in emission. This in turn will help the operation fulfilling some of their targets towards decarbonisation. However, unless you have a clear before and after picture this becomes a ‘trust me’ that the emission levels have fallen. For decarbonisation purposes quality of the air is currently/usually measured above ground outside the return air. To date this has been a difficult area to monitor but Pinssar has now several customers with DPR’s deployed in these areas. There is of course only limited personnel in these areas and if working in this areas appropriate PPE should be worn. Sites are using the data to understand their overall DPM air quality load. Once you know the size of the problem then only can you start rectifying the issue. As the monitors are fixed long term deployments, this will provide long-term site-specific data to site management. If the chosen area is relevant to the operation this data can be used to establish an area specific baseline. Over time and with frequent review of the data and implementing the right ALARP (as low as reasonably possible) methodologies, it will deliver a reduction in DPM levels. The level of the decrease can serve the site to identify the ‘wins’ pertaining to decarbonising their operations.

3. With increasing casualties of DPM exposure, what are your insights on the current respiratory health and safety for the underground mining workforce? 

Not sure that we can describe the situation as increasing casualties due to DPM exposure. The problem with DPM is that it has a long lead-time before the onset of health issues. Even when over exposures occur, it can be difficult to associate deaths to DPM. Whilst it is true that DPM has verified links to being a cancerogenic agent – it remains difficult to directly link deaths to the disease because of the lack of ‘direct’ cause and effect.

The science is clear that there is a direct link when tested on animals but to date I have only seen data on dust and silica related deaths. Silica scars the lungs and is visible from x-ray pictures. DPM is more insidious as it penetrates all human defences (skin, nose, trachea, lungs) to enter the bloodstream via the alveoli in the lungs. Once in the bloodstream these particles can attach to a perfectly healthy cell. Over time the particles may cause the cell to become cancerous. It can also affect the heart as university scientists have found that ultrafine particles produced when diesel burns are harmful to blood vessels. They can increase the chances of blood clots forming in arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

It is fair to say that the body of evidence would indicate that there are more casualties from DPM related diseases than are reported. Why is that? I like to call DPM the silent killer. In the police TV shows it would be the perfect killer. It exposes itself almost everywhere (specially in underground activities where diesel is the main source of energy), it innocuously enters the body and can silently wait for 5 to 20 years before it passes to action through tumours or any heart related disease. To my knowledge to date, we have no test that can proof that DPM is the cause of the problem. The IARC research paper that was used to declare DPM a Group1 carcinogen studied miners of a certain age and compared the findings with the public and identified a significantly higher number of cancers and heart diseases that would be expected to an average person. Therefore, the declaration was made on statistical evidence rather than physiological evidence.

4. Is enough being done to deal with DPM and what can be done differently? 

Without a doubt the answer is no. To date there is very little compliance requirements to monitor DPM exposure. Rightly compliance focuses on the individual and therefor the NIOSH 5040 gravimetric test is the only gauge of in situ exposures. The problem is that the results of these test rely on external laboratories and can be 5+ weeks delayed before the exposure is reported back to site and the individual. Some jurisdictions require vehicle tailpipe testing prior to entering an underground workplace. However, the testing happens above ground and in a free acceleration mode. This test has no resemblance to how the vehicle operates in underground environs and under load.

There are no requirements for operations to measure DPM in continuously. This makes no sense as we now require dust and silica to be measured in real-time and continuously ignore DPM and still operate on 10+year old legislation for DPM. The Work Health and Safety bodies forever tell us that DPM is next on their agenda. The problem for me is that they choose to separate dust from DPM.

However, standards are changing and in a ground-breaking decision the British Standards (BS6164 in late 2019) have for the first time included DPM with dust for continuous monitoring. This means that every underground project in the UK has been recommended to measure DPM exposure 24/7. Whilst this is not compliance monitoring it is best practice which in a court of law would be as good as compliance.
Some of the Tier1 miners have embarked on a journey toward decarbonising their operations and in light of this are reviewing their DPM exposure levels. The same operators are launching worldwide health platforms for their workers. Some of them are including DPM as part of their reporting protocols.

It is possible that overtime other operators will follow this lead. In the construction industry the BS6164 could become the ‘golden standard’. However, the EU has mandated that no underground operation can exceed 50µ/m³in an 8 hours’ time weighted average (TWA) by 2026. This is still 4 years away but has raised the bar for operation in preparing themselves for these changes.
However, if we want to see real changes, we need the US and other Tier1 countries to mandate continuous monitoring of DPM so that we can be sure that the controls that are in place to minimise exposure of DPM to their employees always work.

5. How do we bridge the gap between ‘lagging’ legislation and doing the right thing to save the lives of underground mine workers? 

The majority of the answer to this question was answered in the last question. I would however like to add a few comments directly relating to closing the gap.

Most organisations will do the bare minimum as they see compliance as a cost of doing business rather than an opportunity to become more efficient.

Monitoring of DPM for me is more than a health parameter. With the Internet of Thing (IoT) sensors are becoming standard in all operations. Whilst no doubt some of these will be health related generally the true value is in optimising the operations. DPM monitoring essentially reports as to the functionality of the controls that the operation has in place to minimise DPM exposure. The key controls are ventilation (dilution) and vehicle maintenance and in particular onboard technology that helps mitigating DPM exhaust fumes. The critical parameter is to manage to reduce your emissions to a level that is considered safe for work (ALARP) or continuous improvement. If these are permanently achieved there will be operational savings (fuel, power, and better utilisation of the equipment with less downtime).

In short this means education of the key stakeholder as to the value of continuous monitoring. The value may not be instant, but it will become apparent as overtime sites will readjust their practices to meet the daily rolling average for DPM.

Saving lives will come from better attention to actual DPM exposure levels being known and communicate these in real-time to the people working underground.

6. What are some of the key challenges faced by Pinssar currently? (In spreading awareness and expanding Pinssar in the market)

The key challenge is that there is no set path for the implementation of this technology. Most sites are still focused on tonnage or meters/day and anything else is a challenge that might be a bridge too far. The decision-makers don’t see DPM as a short-term problem. The consequences of DPM exposure will most probably not raise its ugly head under their command. Further, most people react in accordance with their personal KPIs. To date, I don’t think chronic health issues rate high. Safety is paramount as it is critical to the progress of the project and therefore needs to be handled here and now. Selling value can be difficult as it is subjective and often cannot be directly monetised.

Whilst compliance would be good as a short-term goal for the business in the long run, I believe it would lose that critical component which is what can we do with the data. Long-term the data can be utilised for predictive analysis and would be able to identify potential problems prior and take pre-emptive action rather than corrective action. Back to my previous statement education of the key stakeholders is vital but the right people often don’t attend the educational sessions and the message can be lost in translation when conveyed to these stakeholders by the influencers. Everybody is geared to deliver their message but not always the one people need before deciding and therefore gets left in the too hard basket. Move it to the next guy’s budget attitude is very common and needs to be addressed.

Currently, the lead-time for a sale is between 2 years and 12 months. Way too long when you think that people are being exposed daily to levels that might be detrimental to their long-term health. It is fair to say that most of the workforce is not fully aware of the consequences of DPM exposure.

7. Moving forward, how important are collaborations in tackling DPM?

Collaboration between businesses is a subject that METS and TIQ raise as point of difference. For businesses to be able to collaborate there must be a mutual advantage. The emphasis being on mutual. It often looks attractive to work with other likeminded or businesses with close synergies. We have and are currently working with other businesses.

Our current business model is B2B in Australia and distributors in most of O/S markets. The first model is attractive financially and brings us close to the end-user and therefor can be of direct assistance when it comes to integrate our technology in their businesses. It can be resource hungry and that can sometimes become an issue when you only have a small workforce.
The model of using distributors is equally challenging, as generally the lead-time to sales is too long for their appetite and the risk is that they may lose interest.

We do attend and present at forums to raise the awareness of the problem and highlight that there is a solution.
I know GRT is a large dust suppressant manufacturer. Whilst we have some similarities and understanding of each other’s problem. We in some cases would present to the same clients. We have similar non-binding agreements with other manufacturers of product that we recommend, and they do the same for us. At this stage we have not asked for any monetary compensations as generally these types of arrangements are not that lucrative.

Keith Nare

Technical Head of Communications for GRT, Keith leads GRT's content strategy across various platforms, whilst coordinating internally to build the voice and opinions of the GRT team. Keith is a product of Nelson Mandela University and his PhD work focuses on Polymer and Physical Chemistry. He was a Research Associate at SANRAL in South Africa and later spent time as a Visiting Research Associate to NTEC at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is a former Director of Communications for CALROBO in the USA.

Keith is passionate and enthusiastic about health and safety, sustainability, networking and finding synergy through conversations.