Issue Date: February 7, 2011
Instrumentation: Aerodyne Spectrometers Ease Particle Research
Research into atmospheric aerosol particles has accelerated in the past decade, propelled in part by advances in reliable and portable instruments from Billerica, Mass.-based Aerodyne Research.
According to Charles E. Kolb, president of Aerodyne, about 100 of the firm's aerosol mass spectrometers (AMSs) are now used around the world. Some are so small they can be deployed on airplanes, installed in mobile labs, or shipped off and set up in the Siberian tundra to evaluate real-time atmospheric conditions. Larger lab-based instruments can be used for in-house atmospheric chamber studies.
"The first academic paper citing our AMS appeared in 2000," Kolb says. And since then, the firm's AMSs have received more than 400 additional citations, he says. Many of the articles examine not only the role of particles in cloud formation but also their impact on the phenomenon of global warming.
Depending on their size and sophistication, the instruments cost between $150,000 and $450,000, Kolb says. The more expensive versions of the firm's AMSs come equipped with a time-of-flight mass spectrometer from the German firm Tofwerk for detailed particle-size and composition studies.
Key to Aerodyne's spectrometers is a patented nozzle system, known as the aerodynamic lens, that collects a beam of fine particles from the air and feeds it into the AMS for analysis. Aerodyne licensed the technology from its developer, Peter H. McMurry, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Twenty years ago, studying such atmospheric particles involved collecting them on a filter, scraping them off, and then analyzing them, Kolb says. Results took days and the analyses were often inaccurate because the process didn't capture many volatile elements. The aerodynamic lens, along with today's faster mass spectrometers, allows more complete capture of volatile elements and delivers results in real time.
"Particle collection is critical" in atmospheric research, notes Richard C. Flagan, a professor of environmental science and engineering at California Institute of Technology. The aerodynamic lens is an "elegant and simple" solution to collecting particles and an important element in the commercial success of Aerodyne's AMSs, he says. Researchers have used instruments from other makers, such as TSI and Aerosol Dynamics, for particle research, Flagan adds, but because Aerodyne's AMSs are relatively easy to operate and widely used, new researchers "can get started fast" with the firm's instruments.
Aerodyne started out in 1970 as a contract R&D firm that worked for the U.S. military solving problems such as tracking rockets and space vehicles in Earth's atmosphere. Kolb, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton University in physical chemistry, joined the firm a few years later.
Kolb helped expand the firm's work into atmospheric chemistry, combustion chemistry, and pollution formation. He became president of privately held Aerodyne, which he now owns, in the mid-1980s.
Aerodyne still does some of the tracking research it was founded to do, but it now has $18.5 million in annual revenues, mostly from atmospheric-chemistry-related work that Kolb calls his "passion." About half of the firm's revenues come from the sale of instruments including AMSs.
Today, the firm employs about 60 people, including 40 Ph.D.s, Kolb says. It also hosts collaborators, including postdoctoral researchers, visiting professors, and national lab researchers.
The firm not only does contract research with academic partners but also works with a number of government agencies to accurately track and analyze airborne particles with the aim of ultimately helping reduce man-made pollutants. "Important problems are complicated," Kolb says. "We need special tools, facilities, and the right people to solve them."
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