Particle physics is a basic science that forms our image of matter and the universe. However, the findings of this discipline also have practical applications that directly influence our daily lives. One example is the company DECTRIS AG in Baden-Dättwil. At the joint annual conference of the Austrian Physics Society (ÖPG), the Swiss Physical Society (SPS) and the Swiss Institute for Particle Physics (CHIPP) in Geneva in August, the company presented its latest business ventures.
The of SPS/ÖPG and CHIPP between August 21 and 25 brought together over 280 scientific lectures and a variety of poster presentations. But the event was also a forum for discussions about the influence of research on society. It is often overlooked that basic research findings also bring important societal benefits, even though their value cannot be measured in Swiss francs or export sales. Such research not only contributes to a better understanding of elementary particles and their interactions, but also offers commercially viable applications that can be converted into sales and jobs.
A workshop at the SPS/ÖPG and CHIPP conference was dedicated to start-ups, all of which have grown out of physical sciences research. Representatives of seven young companies presented their business ideas— new measuring instruments or technologies for energy production, for example. Among them was DECTRIS, which has its roots directly in particle physics research. DECTRIS is no longer a start-up, however, since the company, which was founded eleven years ago, has long established itself in the market. The company has customers worldwide and with its over 100 employees, is profitable (since its founding year, by the way). However, the company fit well in the start-up event, because it demonstrates the potential of research, which is sometimes derided by critics as “useless.”
Fruits of CERN Research
Dr. Christian Brönnimann launched the company in 2006 as a spinoff of the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen / AG (PSI) . At the center of the commercial activity is a technology developed previously at the PSI to explore the fundamentals of matter using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator located at CERN. The technology was intended to be applied to the large CMS experiment of the LHC to measure traces of elementary particles. DECTRIS applied the groundwork of the technology to build extremely powerful X-ray cameras for scientific and industrial applications.
This has resulted in a new generation of instruments, which are very useful when studying materials and protein crystallography. PILATUS, the first DECTRIS X-ray camera, and the DECTRIS devices based on it, are used in synchrotrons, in which scientists use X-ray radiation to investigate the structure of various matter. The detectors have also found use in the research & development departments of companies that rely on high-sensitivity cameras. One field of application is pharmaceutical research for example: researchers can examine the atomic structure of proteins to develop new drugs.
Bones in Chicken Meat
At the CHIPP / SPS meeting, DECTRIS product manager David Murer reviewed the history of DECTRIS during his presentation. At the same time, the physicist directed his attention to the future. Murer is Product Manager of Industrial Imaging at DECTRIS. The term ‘Industrial Imaging’ represents the new business area that DECTRIS wants to build using its proven technology platform. “We want to develop DECTRIS technology for industrial applications,” says Murer. X-ray cameras, for example, could be used by food companies to identify bone parts in chicken meat or bones in fish products on production lines. “X-rays are already used for similar purposes, but the available technologies are limited,” says Murer. “Light materials such as plastic or fine bone splinters cannot be detected at the moment. Our technology brings a decisive innovation: it can measure the energy of the x-rays for every pixel in the image. Thus, significant performance advantages can be obtained in various applications— inspection systems can differentiate different materials, for example. As a result, the ability to recognize dangerous foreign bodies, such as the aforementioned bone chippings, dramatically improves. However, there are many other uses for this application of the detectors, such as to inspect of 3-D printed parts of aircraft or fiber composite materials. Several evaluation projects are currently under way in the field of Industrial Imaging. In addition, DECTRIS is already in discussion with suppliers of inspection equipment in the food and other industries.
For his work David Murer, can thankfully rely on his diverse education. He had first studied computer science and later nuclear physics. He later developed a neutron detector at the ETH. In addition to 'Industrial Imaging', DECTRIS aims to pursue two further business areas. The first is electron microscopy. DECTRIS technology can extend the application potential of electron microscopy—to determine the structure of proteins for example. In contrast to X-ray crystallography, the proteins need not be crystallized, which is a considerable advantage for users.
Switzerland’s Industrial Base Gets Stronger
Another new business segment is novel medical applications. Energy-sensitive X-ray cameras not only distinguish bones from soft tissue, but also among different soft tissues, which offers new diagnostic options to physicians. DECTRIS instruments could also make it possible to examine patients with lower doses of x-rays, which would reduce the risk of damage to healthy tissues. “In our new markets, we are operating once again as a start-up, because there are no established marketing channels, no fixed customer base, and no mature business model,” says Murer.
Particle physics research certianly doesn’t spinoff companies such as DECTRIS every day, but the research contiunes to lead to useful technologies and applications. In this way, particle physics also contributes to a prosperous economy. David Murer calls DECTRIS a “hardware start-up,” a company that does not develop software solutions alone, as is the case with many start-ups. “Our company is not only software programmers, but also offers a wide range of jobs, from production to scientific sales.” They are companies that ensure that Switzerland continues to have an industrial base.
Author: Benedikt Vogel