Nanoparticle nose

A tiny fraction of a millimetre in size, nanoparticles in the environment are made naturally by volcanos, sea-spray and chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

Nanoparticles can also come from welding and grinding, power plants and vehicle exhausts. In the centre of London, 50% of the nanoparticles in the air are made by human activity.

Kent-based Naneum make portable miniaturised instruments to sniff out and identify nanoparticles.

Naneum instruments are being used to investigate climate change, assess workplace air-quality, and study health implications of breathing in nanoparticles.

“We feel very proud that Naneum Instruments are a very good example of how leading-edge physics can have practical and beneficial applications for society,” says Dr Robert Muir, Naneum CEO.

Naneum is the winner of a 2012 Innovation Award from the Institute of Physics celebrating companies that make the most of applying physics in a commercial environment.

Dr Robert Muir, CEO, Naneum

Dr Robert Muir, CEO, Naneum


Dr Robert Muir: Naneum was founded in 2005. The aim of Naneum was to manufacture – design and manufacture – leading edge products that would make it easy for researchers to make in situ measurements of airborne nanoparticles.

Our flagship product is the NPS-500. This is an instrument for characterising, sizing and reporting the size distributions of nanoparticles in the air. We developed this product from an identified market need. We saw that the instruments that were able to perform the functions at the present time were laboratory-bound instruments. They were large, they were immobile and they could not be used except by highly trained engineers.

We set out to make a miniaturised instrument that could be transported to the source of the nanoparticles and that could be used by any well trained engineer.

Brian Steer: Nanoparticles in the environment come from both natural and human sources. Natural sources include chemical reactions in the atmosphere, as well as volcanos and sea-spray. Human sources include manufacturing processes such as welding and grinding processes, and combustion sources such as power plants and of course car exhausts.

Nanoparticles in the air can be made by traffic

Nanoparticles in the air can be made by traffic

Dr Robert Muir: If you go into urban areas, for instance the centre of London where we’ve made some measurements on Oxford Street, up to 50% of the nanoparticles in the air will be generated by man-made processes. Nanoparticles in particular deposit themselves deep in the respiratory tract, in the lungs, in the air exchange region.

The jury is out on the dangers of nanoparticles but of course investigating the exposure and making the relevant studies to see what those hazards are is very important. And that’s where Naneum Instruments come in. They’re being designed and they’re ideal for doing those experiments.

The NPS500 measures particles in the size range from 5 nanometres up to 500 nanometres. The way it does this is that it separates the particles according to size, through an electrostatic size classifier.

Brian Steer: This is the sizing component of the NPS500. It works by passing an air flow through two metal plates – two electrodes – across which a high voltage is applied. The nanoparticles are sized by choosing a particular voltage and with that voltage you choose a particular size nanoparticle.

Electrostatic nanoparticle sizer

Electrostatic nanoparticle sizer

Dr Robert Muir: The particles that come out of this classifier, or sizer, are too small to be seen by normal instrument so we have to grow them in what’s known as a condensation particle counter.

Brian Steer: The nanoparticles are mixed with the vapour from a heated fluid. This vapour is then condensed onto the condenser to grow the nanoparticles from say 10 or 100 nanometres in size up to about a micron, where they can easily be detected.

The particular innovations of this product are the electrostatic classifier, firstly is of a different design to what has traditionally been used. This allows it to be much smaller, compact, and therefore portable compared to traditional instruments.

Naneum development labs

Naneum development labs

Dr Robert Muir: Winning the Innovation Award is a tremendous boost to us. It really makes us feel very much recognised and at the forefront of physics. We feel very proud that Naneum Instruments are a very good example of how applied science and applied leading-edge physics can have practical and beneficial applications for society.

Our instruments are now being used in areas such as climate investigations of climate change, looking at occupational hygiene issues, looking at health issues, inhalation, toxicology.

These are things that will benefit people in the future and we feel very proud that our instruments are used in that way.

Brian Steer, Naneum

Brian Steer, Naneum

About the film

Filmed on location at:

  • Naneum, Canterbury Innovation Centre, Canterbury, UK. September 2012.

Director: Martyn Bull
Producer: Thomas Delfs
Camera: Mark Whatmore
Editors: Liam Angell, Mike Willbourne
Cast: Dr Robert Muir, Dr Brian Steer

Production company: insitu
Client: Institute of Physics

Camera: RED Epic, Canon 550D

Further reading

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