Pumps & Pipes brings together the newest technologies from the oil and gas, medical and aerospace professions in Houston to talk about something they all have in common:
More specifically, members talk about problems because someone else in the room – from a completely different discipline and expertise – may already have found an effective solution.
The organization recently announced plans for its eighth annual gathering, the Pumps & Pipes 8 Symposium, on Dec. 8 at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, with the theme “Ideas to Insight.”
It’s an exciting time for Mike Hess, assistant director of engineering for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“Typically we tend to throw it over and ‘go live’ in these things. You’ll actually jump into surgery and see how they’re using robots to operate on a person,” Hess noted.
“It’s jaw-dropping, what the medical profession can do,” he said.
Talk to a Pumps & Pipes participant and you’re likely to hear the phrase, “The other guy’s toolbox.”
Drawing on experts in energy, medicine and aerospace, the program brings together technologists and practitioners in a sharing environment, with the idea that the solution to one person’s problem might be found in the other guy’s toolbox.
It seems like a natural idea, but it’s far from obvious for scientists deeply involved in their own research.
“There are a lot of times we go off and look at problems in the aerospace domain, and we don’t really look at the possibility that what we’re working on has an application for somebody else,” Hess said.
Pumps & Pipes started as a collaboration between the medical profession and the oil and gas industry, sparked by the chance meeting of two people on a jetliner.
NASA joined the mix later, but Hess said aerospace was present at the founding.
“An oil person and a medical profession person got together – and it was on an aerospace device,” he noted.
NASA conducts research in a number of areas with potential applications to medicine and energy, and it is equally interested in current research in those fields, Hess said.
Challenges can be similar in type, if not in degree.
Working in extreme environments? How about an environment with no oxygen. Or gravity.
“We’ve had folks from the medical profession come out and we show them what we can do for them, and it works the same way for the energy industry,” he said.
As an example, Hess talked about a pipeline company that was having trouble with its pigs – the maintenance and monitoring equipment that passes through the pipe along with shipped product.
“So we kind of showed them that we have this inspection ball that works in space,” Hess said. “And we said, ‘But in your case, we can add a tether to it.’”
The first Pumps & Pipes conference was held in November 2007 at the University of Houston’s Texas Learning and Computation Center, with the theme “Docs and Rocks.”
An invitation-only audience included geologists, surgeons, vascular biologists, engineers, physicists, computer scientists, imaging specialists, medical device researchers, clinicians interested in cardiovascular disease and other scientists.
Since then, Pumps & Pipes has held a series of collaboration events, including an international conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, Qatar, in April 2011.
Research topics in previous programs have included microbial-induced corrosion of oil pipe, biofilm imaging, wellbore tractors, shape-memory metals and polymers, nanotechnology, robotics, navigation systems for deepwater wells and cardiovascular interventions, cardiac-valve bioengineering and imaging inside well bores and blood vessels.
The 2014 program announcement said Pumps & Pipes 8 “will voyage from inner space to outer space, with stops in between. We will be visiting Mars to get an update on NASA’s Curiosity Rover and learn about a new Lander mission to study the geology of the red planet. We will also learn about performing surgery on children’s pumps and pipes.
“This year’s program will feature cutting-edge presentations, demonstrations and live video feeds from energy, cardiovascular medicine, NASA, academia and education. Our focus remains on providing a forum for networking, collaboration and problem-solving by exploring the other guy’s toolkit.”
Pumps & Pipes was established by Alan Lumsden, of the Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, and William Kline, of ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company. The University of Houston was then added, represented by Ioannis Kakadiaris.
NASA came on board in 2012. Hess said the Johnson Space Center’s special role in the agency makes cross-industry collaboration especially useful.
While the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California leads NASA’s rover program and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland focuses on spacecraft, satellites and space telescopes, the Johnson Space Center is home to NASA’s astronaut corps and devotes most of its work to human space flight.
“If a medical service company is working on an approach that can miniaturize something that can be used in a life-support system, we should partner with that company,” Hess said.
The next giant step for the space agency is a manned expedition to Mars, and “in order to get humans to Mars, NASA needs a number of technologies to be developed,” he observed. “It takes months to get there and months to get back. You’ve got to be completely independent of Earth.”
Maybe I’m Amazed
Advances in medical and oil and gas technology that can provide insights for NASA are essentially time savers and short cuts that give the agency more time to mature its own systems.
“What we need to be working on is what the commercial companies can’t do,” Hess said. “There’s this near-Earth orbit work, but the middle is what we’re calling the ‘proving ground.’”
The proving ground includes numerous areas of research where the Pumps & Pipes collaboration could be beneficial:
- Life-support systems.
- Extended space walk capabilities.
- Guidance, navigation and control systems.
- Intelligent materials and advanced structures.
- Improved thermal controls.
- Autonomous docking.
“We need enhanced exercise equipment for astronauts,” Hess said. “What if, instead of using these big, bulky systems, you just strapped an exoskeleton on? And in everything, for the humans involved, we need better radiation protection.”
Rock and soil studies could be highly important, because “when you get to Mars there may be a way to use the soil or the atmosphere of Mars, to bake out the oxygen,” he said.
Hess emphasized the importance for NASA of developing systems not reliant on the Earth. People are used to navigating using GPS, but “there’s no GPS for the solar system,” he noted.
Pumps & Pipes began from the concept that the medical profession and the oil and gas industry face similar challenges, but in widely different contexts. NASA grapples with those challenges in outer space.
“We’re all working on similar problems,” Hess said. “Sometimes they’re just phrased differently.”
A consortium that brings together medical, energy and aerospace experts provides plenty of chances for cross-pollination of ideas and technology, plus a sizable amount of mutual admiration.
As Hess said:
“We all look at each other the same way and say, “Wow! It’s amazing what you’re doing!”