Menace Behind the Wall: Researchers Developing Technology to Detect Hidden Mold

Hoping to develop a non-destructive and less expensive method than is now available to detect mold behind walls, Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) scientists are collaborating with humidity control expert Lew Harriman of Mason-Grant Consulting in a two-year feasibility study primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through its Healthy Homes Initiative. The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology Institute in Washington, D.C., and Munters Corporation in Norcross, Ga., are also providing funds for the study.

"Mold is a common problem, especially in humid, southern climates, but people are often not aware of it because it's occurring behind a painted or wallpapered wall," said GTRI research scientist Victor DeJesus. "Then it's too late when they realize it. The wallboard must be replaced."

In addition to degrading structures, mold can emit smelly and potentially harmful compounds into the air, DeJesus added.

Researchers are conducting experiments on damp, mold-infested wallboard panels. Initially, they are using a signal processing algorithm and high-sensitivity, laboratory-size radar system recently developed by GTRI principal research scientist Gene Greneker and senior research scientist Otto Rausch.

They will determine the feasibility of using millimeter-wave, extremely high-resolution radar to detect mold in these panels based on unique characteristics of the mold backscatter signature, extracted by unique signal processing techniques. Also, Harriman will investigate the possibility that X-ray and gamma-ray technologies might work. And later, the researchers will examine the effectiveness of these techniques in detecting mold in other indoor building materials, including ceiling tiles typically used in commercial structures.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to produce a small, handheld prototype unit - something akin to a stud finder - to lay the technical foundation for a commercial product that contractors could purchase for about $1,000 to $2,000 and easily learn to use. They would then test that prototype in actual houses.

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