The Science of Dust Buildup

Why do some parts of a building get dustier than others?

Dust particles are tiny bits of rock, ash and organic matter that have been ground into fine pieces by the wind and wear. Although these particles are denser than the air that surrounds them, they have trouble falling through the air because as soon as they move faster than about a snail’s pace, they experience considerable air resistance or drag forces. A dust particle has trouble falling through the air because the upward drag force it experiences while descending even a few millimeters per second is enough to balance its weight so that it stops accelerating downward.


Because dust particles have so much trouble descending through air, they tend to be swept along with moving air. That’s why areas of your facility that have large air currents tend to accumulate relatively little dust – the dust is swept along with the air currents and doesn’t have time to descend all the way to the floor or furniture. But in areas of your building with fairly still air, the dust can slowly settle out so that it coats all the surfaces.

Why does dust settle on the moving blades of a fan?

As the air flows across the blades of a fan, the dust particles in it occasionally pierce through the airflow and hit the blades. The same sort of process occurs when a bug hits the windshield of a car; the bug would normally follow the airflow but its inertia prevents it from moving out of the way quickly enough and it hits.


Once a dust particle hits the fan blades, there isn’t much to remove it. The air moves remarkably slowly right at the surface of the fan because that surface layer of air experiences lots of viscous drag. Even though the air is moving swiftly only a few millimeters away, the air right on the fan blade is almost stationary. Thus the dust can cling to the blade indefinitely.

Louis A. Bloomfield is Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia and author of "How Everything Works: Making Physics out of the Ordinary" (Wiley, 2007).


Bloomfield received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1983 and was a postdoctoral fellow at AT&T Bell Laboratories before arriving at the University of Virginia in 1985. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his research in atomic, condensed matter, and optical physics, including the Apker Award of the American Physical Society, a Presidential Young Investigator Award of the National Science Foundation, a Young Investigator Award of the Office of Naval Research, and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.


Bloomfield has also been widely recognized for his teaching of physics and science to thousands of non-science students at the University of Virginia and is the recipient of a 1998 State of Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award and the 2001 Pegram Medal of the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society. He is the author of almost 100 publications in the fields of atomic clusters, autoionizing states, high-resolution laser spectroscopy, nonlinear optics, computer science, and general science literacy, and of a recent introductory textbook entitled "How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life," 3rd Edition (Wiley, New York, 2006).


Bloomfield also works extensively with professional societies and the media to explain physics to the general public. He frequently serves as a physics consultant and as an expert witness on legal matters that require a broad understanding of physics and scientific issues.