According to Health Canada, an estimated 3,000 Canadians die each year from radon exposure. Now, a team of Carleton University students and professors are trying to change that.

Alex Ross, BEng/14, first heard of radon when he was looking for a focus for his fourth-year engineering project—all Carleton engineering students are required to produce an original design innovation in their final year of study.

Radon is an invisible, odourless and tasteless radioactive gas found naturally in the earth. It is produced by the decay of uranium found in soil, rock or water and can move freely through the soil, enabling it to escape into the atmosphere or seep into buildings.

Ross connected with PhD candidate Ryan Griffin, who was constructing a radon monitor that collects data faster and less expensively than other monitors currently on the market.

Ross and a group of other fourth-year students worked to transform Griffin’s original detection sensor, a core component of the monitor, into something that could be produced in
a more commercial, high-yield way.

When radon escapes from the earth into the outdoor air, it is diluted so much that it does not pose a threat to human health. If a building is built over soil that contains uranium, radon gas can be released into the building through cracks in foundation walls and floors, or gaps around pipes and cables. Trapped in small spaces, like residential basements, radon can accumulate to dangerous levels.

If an individual inhales this radioactive gas, it can cause lung tissue damage, which could ultimately lead to cancer

Some areas in Canada are more highly affected than others. In the Ottawa area, particularly large quantities of radon can be found in Kanata and Gatineau.

Seeing his group’s progress, and becoming more passionate about the world’s need for a detection system for radon, Ross decided to apply to the Faculty of Engineering’s summer fellowship program.

The fellowship program is supported by local entrepreneur Tom Skinner, MEng/72. Skinner wanted to help engineering students begin to commercialize their fourth-year projects.

“In grad school, or a fourth-year project, you finish up a project for grading and move on. I want students to have the chance to take it further—to take a term paper or project and develop it into something with a practical use,” he said.

“It makes a big difference to get funding for small projects that have the potential to be big,” said Ross. “Students don’t get that many opportunities; it’s hard to explain the gratitude I have for Mr. Skinner’s help, honestly.”

The summer fellowship allowed Ross to develop a full-scale version of the sensor, which is now being fabricated by ams AG (formerly known as austriamicrosystems AG), a multinational semiconductor in Austria.

When the sensor returns, the Carleton team will test it before attempting to sell it as a commercial product. They hope to see it in homes across the nation—working much like a smoke detector.

While a variety of commercial radon monitors are available today, these devices are often quite expensive or take a long time to collect measurements that must then be sent to a lab for analysis.

Health Canada and the National Research Council have both shown interest in the Carleton radon monitor.

“Whether it’s my product, or someone else’s, I feel like it’s something that needs to come to the marketplace,” Ross said. “All the deaths, the people that are getting lung cancer, this is something that could be prevented.”

Ross is now pursuing his master’s of applied science at Carleton University.