Going With the Flow

Pumps and Pipes conference

By Heather R. Johnson

Aside from a strong presence in Houston, medicine, aerospace and oil and gas don’t seem to have much in common. What would a cardiologist and an Exxon Mobil executive talk about, besides the Astros?  

Plenty, it turns out, which is the reason Alan Lumsden, M.D., professor and chairman of Houston Methodist Hospital’s Department of Cardiovascular Surgery and medical director of its DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, and William Kline, Ph.D., manager of drilling and subsurface for ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company, decided to form a collaborative to share ideas. The result, Pump & Pipes, brings together professionals from seemingly disparate industries to share their knowledge and discuss ideas.

“We’re all in the flow assurance business,” explains Dr. Lumsden. “A cardiologist uses imaging and catheters to improve volume flow. An engineer uses drills.”

“There are distinct similarities between operating three inches deep in someone’s chest and operating three miles deep in the earth or 300 miles up in the air,” says Ken Williams, a geologist and Mended Hearts Houston Chapter 38 secretary. “An innovation in NASA could very well apply to heart remote sensing.”

Now entering its eleventh year, Pumps & Pipes hosts annual conferences where industry professionals can hear talks on science, technology and engineering. In between, they help one another solve “flow” problems.

For example, ExxonMobil engineers built software that allows them to test products inside an MRI scanner. The technology piqued the interest of cardiologists, who could potentially use the technology to scan and evaluate devices such as replacement heart valves. During another discussion, oil and gas engineers wanted to learn how the MDs approached infection prevention in order to better combat pipeline corrosion.

“We may never know what comes out of those ideas,” says Dr. Lumsden. “We take solace in the fact people come back year after year.”

To date, Pumps & Pipes reports 2,240 in-person conference attendees and more than 23,000 participating via video stream. Participants come from 40 states and 57 countries.

When innovators turn ideas into new products and procedures, heart patients stand to benefit. “All three industries could benefit from any one innovation,” says Williams. “It expands dramatically the number of people looking for innovations to maintain flow assurance.”

In 2015, Pumps & Pipes added a fourth component: education and outreach. Partnering with Houston Independent School District high school and middle schools, industry mentors in energy, medicine and aerospace meet with teachers to develop STEM-focused projects and field trips. ExxonMobil’s mentorship program brings students from the Houston area into its laboratory to show them the technology that lives right in their own back yard.

Pumps & Pipes’ recent conference, “Expanding Our Ecosystem,” builds on the past 10 years with a focus on medical device innovation. “We’re very interested in NASA robotics, as are oil and gas,” says Dr. Lumsden.

We may not see the results of Pumps & Pipes 11 discussions for several years, but tomorrow’s improvements in flow assurance could very well tie back to this group’s new approach to cross-collaboration.