PhD student's invention rockets to success

by Eric Smith

It doesn't look like much. A spherical canister the size of a small grapefruit topped with a gauge and a spigot bearing McGill's crest. But McGill doctoral student Philippe Simon's invention is stirring a lot of interest among environmental scientists and engineers the world over.

So much interest, in fact, that four of Simon's prototypes found their way from a laboratory in the Frank Dawson Adams building all the way to the Russian Mir space station.

The use of vacuum-filled canisters to collect ambient air samples is not new. What Simon has discovered is a way to precisely control the flow of air into the canister over a period of time, without relying on any outside power source or human intervention.

Simon's flow control device can be customized for the desired sample size, intervals between sample collections, and the overall time stretch for collection. A device might be set to collect a quarter millililter of air each minute for a period of seven days, for example. Once the desired sample is collected the canister's valve is closed and its contents are ready for analysis to determine the quantity of impurities and pollutants present in the sample.

Analysis of the contents of the canisters on Mir will let Russian space program engineers verify the function of the space station's air systems. It will also help them diagnose and explain any illnesses that might befall the cosmonauts working on the station.

Word of Simon's discovery found its way to the Russian space program via Scientific Instrument Specialists (SIS), the company that provides him with the canisters. Boeing, another SIS customer, was looking for a similar device and heard about the McGill invention from SIS. Boeing in turn let NASA know about the discovery. So Simon flew down to NASA's Huntsville, Alabama headquarters to present the results of his prototype to a Russian space program delegation.

"At the end of the presentation, they said this represented a revolution in the air quality field," says Simon.

When he first started developing the device, Simon anticipated the impact his invention might have. "I saw we were crossing a physical barrier that had never been crossed before," he says. "I went back in the scientific literature and found this was a problem Newton had tried to address, that scientists working with Einstein had looked at this."

Simon's thesis supervisor, Occupational Health Professor Jean-Pierre Farant, agrees this represents a significant step for environmental engineering. On the same day the Soyuz was launched to transport the devices to Mir, Ferant and Simon found out their discovery received one of six nominations from the Quebec Order of Engineers for this year's Grand Prize for Invention.

The next step for Simon is to figure out how to commercialize his invention. He anticipates significant demand for the device, especially in the U.S., where it would be instrumental in implementing the Clean Air Act. "We need to do this quite rapidly," he says. "It's actually a rather simple system and someone else could find out how to do it."

Simon foresees two options for marketing the device. If he can find an investor to start manufacturing, the patent might be exchanged for royalties to Simon, Farant and McGill.

Otherwise, Simon suggests he might buy back the device from the University when he finishes his PhD and commercialize it himself. Although Simon says he would be happy with either scenario for getting the invention on the market, he adds that the first option is the one that would allow him to continue his scientific research work.