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Ahead, high-tech help for mine rescues

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Could new high-technology devices, some on the drawing board, others not yet approved for use in coal mines, have saved the 12 miners who died in the Sago coal mine last week?

Christopher Papile thinks so. The director of strategic business for NexTech Materials of Columbus, Ohio, says the company's fuel-cell technology could easily have been adapted to deliver three or more days of breathable air to the Sago miners, who died after their air supply ran out.

"The technology we've proven would have kept 12 miners alive underground for 72 hours without a problem," says Dr. Papile, who envisions a device stationed in mine safe rooms. "If we already had this product ready we could have saved those guys."

Today all miners carry a "self- contained, self-rescue" or SCSR device on their belts - the same basic technology used for three decades. Breathing into a chamber activates a chemical reaction that creates oxygen for about an hour. But in meetings last month, sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), investigators said output of such devices could be doubled or tripled.

"What we've found is very encouraging," says Michelle Dougherty, director of technology transfer at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. "Some cross-over technology may help us move to a next generation of self-breather that works something like a fuel cell and lasts for hours."

Despite society's technological advances, few new major emergency or rescue technologies have been deployed widely in coal mines in recent years, some experts say.

That's not to say advanced technologies are unavailable. Several have been developed from new generation mine-rescue robots, to illuminated rescue "lifelines" that emergency responders could use in smoky passageways, to laser pointers that can help see through dust.

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