Energy, Medicine And NASA Swap Ideas Today At Houston's 'Pumps & Pipes' Conference

Pumps & Pipes didn’t start the collaboration between energy engineers and physicians.

But it is an attempt to nurture and formalize it.

Bill Klein with ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company would be the first to admit that researchers in different fields have always borrowed from each other.

“Directional drilling for example uses a lot of the concepts developed by NASA for trajectory control. Similarly, we look inside of rocks using a lot of the technologies developed by the medical business. And that’s what we’re about, peering into the other guy’s tool box.”

But over the past few years, Pumps & Pipes has produced some specific advances. For example, ExxonMobil brought over a model of a gravel pack to Methodist. That’s a filter device for an oil well, to prevent sand from coming up.

The researchers stuck the model into a hospital MRI, so they could see imagery of how fluid flowed through the gravel pack.   Then they used that data to refine the design.

“In the oil and gas business, we are very interested in flow assurance and we’re interested that that flow be as robust as possible. So to the extent that we can eliminate just a few pounds per square inch from the flow, that makes us a lot of money.”

In turn, the energy company helped Methodist create a new test device that simulates blood flow.

Dr. Alan Lumsden at Methodist uses it to test valves and other cardio-vascular implants. The new test device has no metal parts, so it can be used inside an MRI. That means Dr. Lumsden can create a three-dimensional moving image to see how an implant might work inside a patient.

“I mean we had built a pumping system, we were doing research on it. But this really took it to a whole different platform. As you know, when you’re trying to compete for NIH grants, you’ve got to differentiate yourself from the other smart people out there. And this is fundamentally different.”

Lumsden points out that if you really boil it down, he and oil engineers both want to keep fluids flowing safely and evenly, whether that fluid is blood or oil.

Pumps & Pipes is still growing. This year, NASA will step up its involvement, bringing in experts on remotely-operated robots. The University of Houston is also heavily involved.

But Lumsden says that for the collaboration to really take off, Houston must attract more biomedical device companies, so the ideas being hatched here can be developed and brought to market.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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