There aren’t very many positive things to say about a pandemic, but perhaps one positive outcome has been the successful advancement of mRNA vaccine technology. Although some people have the impression that this was very rapidly developed over the past year or so, the mRNA idea dates back to the late 1980s. It’s actually been undergoing development for 20+ years, although obviously the target wasn’t always the coronavirus. As a chemical engineer, I’m interested in the scale-up and production aspects, since that’s what we do best.
As a vaccine production method, the mRNA platform is exciting because it is so fast. Traditional vaccine production methods required the growth of batches of cells to produce the vaccine components. This cell growth is done in big tanks, sort of like beer brewing, but is typically slow. It may take many days or weeks to get one batch done. Some vaccines are still produced in chicken eggs (influenza) or cells grown in small “roller bottles” (measles). All of these are slow and difficult to scale-up to produce billions of doses.
The mRNA production method is not cell-growth based, it just uses a biochemical synthesis method. Here, you just mix a bunch of ingredients, add some enzymes to assemble the mRNA molecules, then enclose them in some nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are a key part of the product, and they serve a couple of key roles: 1) they protect the mRNA from degradation, since RNA is fairly unstable especially once injected into your arm; and 2) they provide the mechanism for the mRNA to get into your muscle cells where your body uses it to produce the “antigen” (the piece of virus protein that your body learns to recognize and fight, if you’re ever infected with the virus in the future).
This biochemical synthesis method can be done in a few hours, versus the days or weeks for the traditional vaccine manufacturing methods. There are still some purification and packaging steps involved which take some more time, but the overall process is still very fast in comparison to the older ones. The mRNA platform is very adaptable too, so the vaccine can be quickly modified if necessary, as the virus mutates, just by changing the “manufacturing template” (DNA plasmid) that assembles the mRNA molecules.
The Sartorius company (a science materials & equipment supplier) has produced a short video giving some information about mRNA vaccines and production, which is pretty good and not too technical.
After writing a recent post about helium supply and demand, this news article came up about a new helium production facility in Canada. I wasn’t aware that it was under construction, but it’s nice to see some Canadian progress in securing supplies of this important resource. The photo shows some typical chemical engineering design elements like piperacks, process vessels, separators, compressors, etc. How to put together a process like this, in a safe, sustainable, and economical way, is one aspect of chemical engineering education.
Saskatchewan is now officially home to the largest helium purification facility in Canada after opening in Battle Creek on Tuesday.
Each year, final-year students in Canadian engineering programs pursue open-ended group design projects (“capstone design projects”). This gives them the opportunity to combine the knowledge and skills obtained over the previous 3 academic years (plus work term experience for Waterloo students), and to tackle a problem that is a bit more challenging and wide-ranging than what a typical course assignment can cover.
Our Chemical Engineering class of 2021 has finished up their projects, and some short introductory videos are available for viewing. As usual, the projects are student-selected and they cover a wide range of topics from food processing to low carbon energy systems, reusable plastics to automotive parts manufacturing, and biotechnology to metallurgical processes. Allowing students to pick their own project topic let’s them tailor their experience to an area of interest, that perhaps they want to pursue after graduation.
Anyone interested in chemical engineering, or learning about the wide variety of things that chemical engineers can do, should have a look at some of the videos. They are each only about 1 minute long, give a brief high level overview, and can befound at this link.
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.