Particle analysis makes solid progress

Plants benefit from real-time online measurements

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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A2’s CEO Jon Frattaroli explains the rationale behind the product: FTIR spectroscopy is a powerful analytical tool that has been primarily used in the laboratory due to its size, complexity and lack of instrument stability. However, for increased numbers of applications, a sample can’t be brought to the laboratory or put into a traditional FTIR bench because of the size of the material. So, there’s a need for an analyzer that offers the power of FTIR spectroscopy with the portability of a handheld instrument.

Shaping up

While the benefits of online analysis are obvious, the basis for many modern particle characterization techniques — the equivalent spherical diameter (ESD) — still poses something of a problem. While the ESD allows a single number to be used to quantify the “size” of particles of any shape, particles rarely are homogeneous but instead exhibit a variety of different shapes. Knowing the actual length and width of particles — their shape in fact — in chemical formulations can be critical to product effectiveness.

This is why FlowCAM, a continuous imaging fluid particle analyzer from Fluid Imaging Technologies, Edgecomb, Me., is attracting attention. “FlowCAM was originally developed for the analysis of waste water, but is now moving into the chemicals, pharmaceutical and even food sectors,” says Lew Brown, manager of marketing and sales. Chemical applications to date include paints, printing inks, ink jet toners, plus assorted dispersions, emulsions and mixtures. One major chemical customer has five FlowCAMs, one working 24/7 in the quality control laboratories, with the others shortly going into the production process.

“The main difference here is that we can differentiate between shapes. Everybody knows that the ESD basically involves taking a volume, scrunching it up into a sphere and then finding the volume of that sphere. This tells you nothing about the particle and its shape, unless you’ve got a homogeneous solution.”

 

Figure 3. Windows provide various details about the classes of particles — here, agglomerates, rounds or longs — in a sample. Source: Fluid Imaging Technologies.

FlowCAM can record up to 26 different parameters for each particle and then uses a pattern recognition algorithm to find out how many there are of a particular shape in each sample (Figure 3).

This gives FlowCAM substantial advantages over other analysis techniques, according to Brown. For example, the device reportedly requires far less set-up and maintenance time and, using different-sized flow cells, allows for particles ranging from 1 micron to 3mm to be analyzed. Also, a patented optical element within the objective lens extends the system’s depth of field, greatly increasing the clarity of imaging the instrument is capable of at higher magnifications. The enhanced depth of field allows the device to be used at higher flow rates (up to 10 ml/s) than other instruments, he notes. In addition, measurements such as length/width (not just ESD), area and aspect ratio are easily calculated on the fly, and the images are available for both visual and computational post-processing.

“Our big challenge is that people are stuck in their ways. We have lost a number of potential contracts because people have said that they really like what we can do, but ‘this is the way we do it.’ However, we are getting known around the chemical industry now,” says Brown.

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