The master of dust who has handled parts of the moon
IT'S a business which can find out if your engine will work in desert conditions, whether factory airborne particles are likely to kill people or how efficient your vacuum cleaner is.
Particle Technology, in Hatton, is a world leader in dust and has the only facility of its kind in Europe.
Its founder and managing director, Ron Buxton, was this month recognised by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
It is a prestigious honour, with only a few dozen people having been given the award for service.
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The company is involved in highly sensitive work in the defence, nuclear and Formula 1 sectors.
It is also involved in analysing dust particles sent in by individuals who believe that nearby building sites or factories are producing dust hazardous to their health – work that, on occasion, can include being asked to look at bits of Sellotape stuck up with household dust and dead flies.
One significant client is vacuum giant Dyson.
Ron said: "They use our dust to test their products, and have done from the very early days.
"The powder that is used has to be finely calibrated so that they can compare like-for-like."
One recent investment is in a giant chamber where there is a parked truck. Dust is blown at it and analysis is carried out on how moving parts react. This is vital for testing equipment to be used in dusty environments.
At the other end of the spectrum, the company undertakes particle analysis for inhalers, mobile phones, car radios and ejector seats.
The origins of the business go back to 1984, when Ron left his job at Loughborough University to use his chemical engineering skills for the private sector, designing powders for specific processes. One of the jobs on which the business worked was creating a glass powder to put into toothpaste in order to help whiten teeth.
"Glass powder is very hard and non-porous. The particles had to be perfectly spherical," said Ron.
"At the time, it was very advanced but is something that everyone does now."
When he began his career in the 1960s, the industry was just cottoning on to the significance of particle-size analysis. Sugar is a good example of how particle size affects how a substance behaves. Using the wrong type of sugar when baking biscuits can change the taste, texture and appearance of a biscuit.
The pharmaceutical indus-try is also interested in controlling the particle size.
Ron said: "When particles making up tablets are ground finer, then a drug will be absorbed more quickly into the body."
Particle Technology has also used its expertise to revolutionise golf, helping develop the first all-plastic balls.
Ron said: "They used to be like a ball of rubber bands with a plastic shell but they would crack quite easily, so we studied the particle size of the acrylate and once we got it right, the balls didn't crack."
The business has evolved, helping firms get accreditations, testing for asbestos particles and selling its specialist machinery that can clean complex engine components and collect the particles for analysis.
Over the past couple of years, the business has grown at a rate of 20% per annum.
Ron has no regrets about joining the private sector, having formerly been a researcher at Loughborough University.
He had risen to the role of technical services departmental superintendent and was responsible for significant quantities of moon dust from NASA's Apollo missions, which were sent to the university.
A great responsibility, given how tricky moon dust is to get hold of. Unfortunately, Ron was held responsible when a quantity of extra terrestrial material went missing. The story found its way around the world and caused great embarrassment to the university.
Ron said: "What the papers didn't report was that it was only one single particle of moon dust that went missing – and we literally had millions of them."
In the wake of the comical furore, Ron was asked to find the single particle. One single particle.
The media storm eventually blew over and Ron got back to the work that this month culminated in receiving the Royal Society for Chemistry Award for Service.