Particle accelerator contracts speed growth of Nelson engineering company

A company in Nelson, B.C., is proving that from microscopic things, big things grow.

Dehnel-Particle Accelerator Components and Engineering, or D-Pace, has just won two contracts worth more than $1 million to build ion source facilities, complex accelerator machines that create charged particles for medical and technological applications. 

They are rarely built outside major urban centres, yet two will be designed, built and tested by D-Pace at Selkirk College, then shipped to customers in Japan and North America.

The company, which is in the early design phase of the systems, has taken out a five-year lease on two cavernous bays at Selkirk College's Silver King campus that were about to be torn down.

Previously, the company had built a machine in New Zealand, said D-Pace engineer Dave Potkins.

"This is the first time we'll have one in Nelson. This is spectacular for us," he said.

'The heart of an accelerator'

Ion source facilities are responsible for the first step of particle acceleration for many types of accelerators, including those used to make medical isotopes and semiconductors.

"Technically, an ion source is an accelerator. You create a charged particle and get it moving in the right direction,' says Potkins. "It's at the heart of an accelerator." 

Dave Potkins/Submitted

D-Pace was started by particle physicist Morgan Dehnel in his Nelson basement 25 years ago.

It has grown into an award-winning, multi-million-dollar research and design company that serves the particle accelerator industry and employs a team of 15 physicists, engineers, technologists and support staff in Nelson — with more due to be hired.

Dehnel says the main inspiration for him and his crew has always been the passion for their work.

"That is where innovation happens — people that are doing things that are maybe not for primarily economic reasons," he said. "We love the science." 

Dehnel's company has drawn the admiration of Bruce Ralston, B.C.'s minister of jobs, trade and technology.

"It's a very cool company. I admire his persistence, his patience and his drive," Ralston said on a recent visit to D-Pace. "I'm in awe of people like that."