IMAGINE A HANDHELD MOLD DETECTOR ABOUT the size of a stud finder. You hold it against a suspect area of wallboard, press a button, and get a reading on how much mold is growing in the cavity beyond.

That's the scenario that researchers at Georgia Technical Research Institute hope to create. Using a supersensitive radar device developed by senior scientists Gene Greneker and Otto Rausch, they want to create an easy-to-use device that allows builders to minimize destructive investigation of structures.

Mold apparently has a unique “blackscatter” signature that radar can pick up, so even if a wallboard panel is soaked or damaged, it can isolate the actual presence of mold.

The researchers have had some preliminary success. They were able to identify mold spores in an experimental panel of wallboard that had been injected with nontoxic mold spores after being soaked then kept in a warm environment.

Once they get the algorithms right for identifying mold, the researchers hope to test the equipment on other building materials, such as ceiling tiles. They hope to reduce the cost of the unit to between $1,000 and $2,000. The effort has been supported by several organizations, including Lew Harriman of Mason-Grant Consulting, and HUD's Healthy Homes Initiative. Other contributors include the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology Institute in Washington, and Munters Corp. in Norcross, Ga.