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Health & Science

Pumps, Pipes, Valves and Nozzles: Houston Engineers Gather For Annual Cross-Industry Tech Swap

Experts from Houston's three major industries — energy, medicine and NASA — gathered today at Houston Methodist Hospital to swap ideas about technology. The popular conference, called Pumps & Pipes, is now in its seventh year.



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Pumps & Pipes started out as a collaboration between cardiac surgeons and drilling engineers; both groups wrestle with problems of fluid flow and imaging.

Bill Kline is with ExxonMobil. He is also a co-founder of Pumps & Pipes.

This year he spoke about how petroleum engineers manage fluid flow inside of long thin tubes, a technology that forms the backbone of the fracking revolution.   

“But the point is ‘long thin tubes’ is also exactly what our cardiovascular people do, we’re in the flow assurance business. Nozzles are what the aerospace people do. I’m looking for help, I’m looking for the other guy’s toolkit and that’s what we’re finding in NASA and the medical center.”

The gathering has grown over the years and now includes NASA engineers and other experts — like Nikos Tsekos, a University of Houston professor who directors the medical robotics laboratory.

His team is developing a robotic surgical device that contains no metal, so it can be used inside an MRI machine.

That would allow surgeons to see what they are doing as they operate.

“We built up a way to transfer power remotely through flexible tubes without using fluids. This means that it is leak free, you don’t have problems, it’s environmentally friendly and it has applications even beyond surgery.”

Tsekos says these plastic robotic tubes might be useful in outer space, because they won’t leak and contaminate the surroundings.

Another exhibitor was John Maida of Halliburton. He was showing optical fibers that the company is dropping down fracking wells.

The fibers can listen for seismic activity along their entire length.

Maida says NASA could use a net of these fibers on a spacecraft to monitor for damage or leaks.

“If you wind fiber as a mesh throughout the structure of the aircraft or the spacecraft you can detect where things are happening. We can detect within a meter along the fiber. So it becomes a nerve network, literally.”

Organizers say the one-day conference is just a starting point.

Scientists who are inspired by something they see are expected to start up collaborations.

The goal is to break down barriers between problem-solvers who work in separate industries but have similar challenges.