Aside from being an English pronoun, He is the symbol for Helium, element #2 on the periodic table. The New York Times article discusses the uses and limitations around He supply, and is an interesting read. Over the last year, I’ve been on a PhD advisory committee for a student in Prof. Steven Young‘s group in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED). His student is researching the “industrial ecology” of He, looking into where it comes from, how it’s used, and where the losses occur in the production, transportation and use. It’s quite an interesting issue, and I’ve learned a few things that might be of general interest.
We typically think of Helium use in balloons, or perhaps deep sea diving, but the major worldwide uses are in hospitals (for MRIs), specialized welding and manufacturing, and laboratories (for cryogenics or analytical equipment).
He is collected and purified from natural gas. It is produced during the radioactive decay of uranium in the earth, and collects in pockets of natural gas.
He is one of the few elements on earth that doesn’t have a “cycle”, like the carbon cycle or nitrogen cycle. That means, once it’s released into the air there is no natural way to get it back because it is so light and inert. It simply drifts away into the atmosphere and eventually leaves the planet.
He is so “light” (a small atom) that it is notoriously difficult to contain. It easily leaks and diffuses through materials, even solid metals. That’s why your balloon deflates after a couple of days, and why there are a lot of losses of He during transportation and use.
Since He is so important for some specialized applications, like MRIs, there are concerns that we need to conserve it. Also, since it is associated with natural gas, which we’re trying to scale back because of climate change, it may become more difficult to obtain. It occurs in the air at a concentration of about 5 ppm, so someday we may have to extract it from the air, like we already do with another related element, argon (Ar).
So Helium is kind of an interesting and important material. It involves chemical and mechanical engineering (for extraction, purification, and transportation), physics (for cryogenics, MRI and other applications), and industrial ecology (for understanding how it flows through our global economy, and what might happen in the future).
Today (March 20) is the birthday of Canadian Dr. Maud Menten, born in 1879. Who’s that? Anyone who has learned about enzymes and biochemistry (including chemical engineering students) has likely come across the “Michaelis-Menten” equation. This is a way of characterizing how some enzymes work, and a mathematical equation that we can use to measure or predict enzyme kinetics (how fast an enzyme-mediated reaction will occur), which Michaelis and Menten published in 1913.
According to Wikipedia, Maud Menten was born in Port Lambton, Ontario, Canada, which is about 40 km south of Sarnia, on the St. Clair river border between Canada and the U.S. She was one of the first Canadian women to earn a medical doctor degree (at University of Toronto) in 1911. She went to Berlin, Germany, to work with Leonor Michaelis around 1913, who’s team was doing some ground-breaking medical research work in pH, buffers, and enzymes. This collaboration led to the famous publication and Michaelis-Menten equation which is mentioned by students and researchers a myriad of times since.
After some time in Germany, Menten returned to the University of Chicago where she completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1916, studying the effects of adrenalin on hemoglobin. She went on to establish a career on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh where she continued making significant discoveries in biochemistry and medicine, including early work on electrophoretic separation of proteins (a key biochemistry technique used to this day). After retiring from Pittsburgh, she worked in British Columbia for a few years on cancer research, then returned to Ontario where she passed away in Leamington in 1960.
I frequently ask students if they know who “Menten” was, in the Michaelis-Menten equation, and usually they don’t know. That’s a shame for Canadian students, since she maintained her Canadian citizenship throughout her life, and was a remarkable female scientist at a time when there weren’t very many women accepted, encouraged or active in science.
One interesting topic I come across is “how will our pandemic experience influence technology and design in the coming years“, even after the coronavirus is long gone (preferably) or at least under control? There is a growing awareness that there are things we could be doing better to minimize infection transmission in various commercial and institutional settings, in addition to hospitals where this has been an obvious concern. Even if the coronavirus is completely defeated, reducing the spread of more routine “germs” like colds and influenza or gastrointestinal “bugs” would make good business sense overall, as those account for lost productivity and suffering too. Maybe it’s time we pay more attention to infection prevention in general, beyond just hand washing.
With this interest in mind, I recently agreed to participate on an Advisory Board with a local firm, fabrik architects inc., to provide input on design, materials, and devices that can be used in projects to address the current pandemic and possibly other infection transmission concerns. The Advisory Board members include architects, engineers, and epidemiologists. I look forward to contributing whatever expertise and ideas I have on things like UV disinfection and antimicrobial materials, in what is sometimes called “engineered infection prevention“. It is one way that academics can help to translate current research into new best practices.
Since the pandemic flared in North America, I’ve had quite a few discussions about UV disinfection with media, companies, hospital staff, and various other interested people. There are two major concerns I always try to emphasize:
UV can be an effective disinfection tool IF and ONLY IF it’s used properly (distance, time, power) and at the correct wavelengths (e.g. UV in sunlight, not so good); and
UV disinfection is not safe for the “amateur” user unless it’s been properly designed and engineered into a system that prevents people from exposing their eyes or skin.
Unfortunately, there are many products now out on the market, widely available to the public, that don’t meet concern #1, or #2, or even both! Concern #1 is not so bad for the public. If someone thinks they are disinfecting something but it actually is doing nothing, then it’s more a waste of time and money than a safety issue (as long as they don’t ignore other infection prevention suggestions). Concern #2 (safety) however, is a more serious issue. And now in the media (as in the link above), we start to see reports of people with eye damage due to these inappropriate (and potentially illegal) devices. This is sad, and has potentially long-term consequences for those individuals.
My recommendation: don’t mess around with UV disinfection unless you really know what you are doing. It’s fine in commercial, hospital, and other installations where it has been properly done. I don’t recommend it for home use in rooms or those hand-held devices. For those who contact me, I’m usually happy to provide quick initial impressions on UV devices and their practicality and safety.
A recent edition of “Chemical Engineering Progress” (a magazine from the American Institute for Chemical Engineers), has an interesting section on “Microbiome Engineering”, as illustrated on the cover. This subject nicely illustrates the diversity of directions that chemical engineers might find in a career path.
A microbiome is essentially a community of various types of microbes that live in an environment. Most of this section discusses the human gut microbiome, those trillions of bacteria that live in our bodies in the digestive tract. Apparently, of all the cells in a human body, about 57% of them are microbial (i.e. bacteria, yeast, etc.), and the rest are human cells.
The microbiome in the gut contains about 3,000 different microbial species. In recent years evidence has been mounting that these microbes play key roles in human nutrition, metabolic diseases (like diabetes), mood disorders, and immune system regulation and disorders. Recent information suggests that people with a poor gut microbiome may be more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and severe complications, for example. There is a lot still to be learned about what constitutes a “good” gut microbiome, and how to manipulate it to improve health.
Of particular interest to chemical engineers is the question of how to manufacture so-called “living biotherapeutic products” (LBPs) that could be implanted or swallowed to modify the gut microbiome and cure diseases. Most pharmaceuticals are either chemicals (single or mixtures) or inactivated (dead) parts of microbes or viruses (as used in vaccines). Producing a living product that can grow and thrive in the gut is a somewhat new challenge, especially if it needs to be a complex mixture of microbes.
Some of these engineering/manufacturing challenges would include issues like:
How to shield the manufacturing process and product from oxygen, since many of these gut microbes may be negatively affected by exposure to oxygen (so-called obligate anaerobes).
How to get the multiple species of microbes assembled into the LBP. Grow them all separately then mix? Some may grow better in the presence of other species, due to their complex nutritional requirements and symbiotic effects. Growing mixtures of microbes is much more difficult to control if they grow at different rates.
How to ensure the final LBP product is consistently the same every time it’s produced. The growth history of microbes can affect their final performance and capabilities, even if they are genetically the same. What we call “process control” in chemical engineering will be crucial to consistency of products.
This area of Living Biotherapeutic Products of quite a new one, although it has certain similarities to existing industrial processes like the production of baker’s yeast or Bifidobacteria for dairy starter cultures. As the medical science evolves and promising new therapeutics are identified, chemical engineers will definitely be involved in translating these developments into manufacturing processes that meet future needs.
I’ve written various posts in past years about rankings and the potential problems with them, especially if secondary school students try to use them for choosing a university or program. Often, the rankings are not based on factors that actually impact an undergraduate student’s experience very much. Use the search tool in my blog to find these old posts if you want more information.
However, it’s still fun to look at rankings once in a while, and the U.S. News ones came out recently. I’ll focus on engineering rankings, which can be found at this link.
Waterloo Engineering comes out at #57 overall globally, tied with Caltech in Pasadena California. For comparison, Toronto Engineering is slightly higher at #54, and UBC slightly lower at #63. Essentially all similar, given the vagaries and uncertainties of ranking processes.
On a department level at Waterloo, Chemical Engineering made #87, while Electrical Engineering was #25, Civil Engineering was #73, and Mechanical Engineering was #49 globally. Other departments don’t necessarily show up in rankings because of the way U.S. News categorizes things. However, Waterloo ranks #82 in the “Nanoscience and Nanotechnology” category, which could include various departments in Engineering and Science.
Many of the top ranked engineering programs globally are in China, ranking above the usual U.S. and U.K. schools that you might think of. I haven’t looked at their ranking criteria, so I don’t know why the rankings come out the way they do. Just an interesting observation, and a comment on how much engineering research and activity has grown in China in recent decades.
The pandemic situation has generated a lot of interest and activity in UV disinfection, which has been keeping me busy. Whether it’s for masks, air, surfaces or whatever, there are lots of things getting posted and promoted for using UV. There seem to be an overwhelming number of devices and designs being suggested or sold online. Unfortunately there are also a lot of misconceptions, errors and possibly fraudulent claims being promoted. I’m not going to try and address each and every device (there are too many!), but I can provide some basic ideas that one should know or ask about when considering UV devices. If the supplier can’t readily provide answers or details, then something is possibly wrong. Here are a few key confusing points:
Schools of all sorts are looking for ways to re-open while minimizing coronavirus transmission risks. Harvard University’s School of Public Health recently issued a downloadable document on “Schools for Health”. In it they suggest a number of administrative and engineering approaches for reducing virus transmission in a classroom and school setting. It’s interesting and worth a look.
Since I teach and do research in some aspects of HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) and indoor air quality, those parts of the report caught my attention. They are suggesting that people consider using portable air cleaners in the classroom, especially in situations where the HVAC is non-existent or poor. They don’t give a lot of numerical detail behind that recommendation, but it’s fairly easy to work it out. So I’ve done some quick calculations to see where air cleaners might be useful from a more quantitative perspective.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Karr).
In our current pandemic situation there has been lots of confusion, uncertainty and general ignorance on the subject of face masks and reduction of disease transmission. In the screen capture I show the introductory paragraphs of an article published over one century ago, just as the so-called “Spanish Flu” H1N1 pandemic was probably starting but not yet recognized.