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).
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.
Sometimes I see people getting concerned about future prospects for chemical engineering careers, usually because of some downturn in the oil and gas markets. I guess we should never stop emphasizing that chemical engineering is much more than oil, gas, and petrochemicals! There is also food, pharmaceuticals, alternative energy, environment, safety, consumer products, plastics, minerals, metals, paper & fibers, etc….
Actually, the next 30 years is probably going to be a very exciting and technically challenging time to be a chemical engineer. The world needs people with the innovation skills to handle new materials and energy processes more than ever. Why is that? Here are a few quick thoughts…
An interesting story below about an engineer using his observations in water treatment to innovate and improve work-flow for lots of other companies. A chemical engineering education can lead in lots of different directions!
In 2014, freshly graduated UC Berkeley alum Ryan Chan was working as a chemical engineer at a water purification plant, when he realized that the company was constantly facing equipment downtime. The workers used a maintenance program that helped them track all the breakdowns, but there was a big problem with the software they were using that was slowing them down.
“Everything was desktop based, but the maintenance team, the people that were using it, never sat at a desk,” Chan says.
So Chan realized there had to be a smarter, mobile-first solution for all the blue collar workers across facilities. He wound up teaching himself how to code at night and on weekends, and developed the app while he worked as a chemical engineer, and later as an iOS developer.
In 2016, Chan launched UpKeep, an app developed for facility managers and maintenance workers that allows them to flag things that need repairs and run equipment audits across facilities.
Soap and water is a preferred choice for hand hygiene and reducing microbial and viral contamination. However this isn’t always convenient or available when out walking or shopping for necessities, so the next best thing is a hand sanitizer formulation. The nice commercial ones are in short supply, but it is relatively easy to blend your own if you can access the ingredients. Blending chemicals safely is another chemical engineering specialty. Here’s a recipe for small volumes for home use, with some discussion on the physical chemistry basis for the various components.