Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring minerals that can be dug straight out of the ground. It's a tremendous insulator, and it used to be found all over the place, but it has since been associated with a whole bunch of health concerns, some fatal. The long, thin fibers that make asbestos so good at insulating are nearly impossible to see, and if they get disrupted they can float in the air, get inhaled, and then hang out in your lungs, causing serious damage.
The current asbestos-detecting process is very time consuming: you have to collect a sample of air particles, and then send them off to a lab for analysis, which is kind of inconvenient if you're waiting to find out if asbestos is in your home or workplace. A team from England's University of Hertfordshire recently published a paper called "real-time detection of airborne asbestos by light scattering from magnetically re-aligned fibers" to try to find a better way of detecting this stuff. And it's all about lasers, ya'll.
They shine a laser wherever they want to test for asbestos in the air, and any asbestos particles scatter the light in a signature way, one that identifies whether or not it contains fibers that could be harmful. And then since asbestos is magnetic, they then run the particles through a magnetic field and if the fibers line up with the field, you've got a deadly, deadly winner.
The researchers expect to have a commercial version of this portable asbestos detector ready within a year and a half for roughly $800, which is a lot cheaper than buying new lungs.