Ahead of the headlines

May 5, 2010 by Albert P. “Al” Pisano

Whenever you see a headline about a new threat to our health, safety or well-being, rest assured that a Berkeley engineer is thinking of ways to mitigate that threat in the future.

Civil engineer Robert Bea, for example, has spent 55 years thinking about offshore oil drilling platforms and how to make them more reliable. So, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and began gushing 5,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico, Bea was one of the first experts contacted and interviewed by the press.

“The equipment is state of the art,” Bea told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Everything we can see at this point is this was a damn good piece of equipment. The crucial issues that still remain unaddressed were the human elements.” Bea has long argued before policymakers for tighter regulations governing the training and certification of personnel in oil and gas exploration.

Earlier this spring, when the Iceland volcano eruption darkened large parts of Europe with a massive ash cloud, environmental engineer William Nazaroff offered some thoughts on reducing respiratory hazards caused by exposure to gaseous or particulate contaminants.

“Most of the research monitoring air pollutants has been based on expensive and bulky instruments that one might categorize as ‘transportable’ but not ‘portable,’” says Nazaroff, recently named the Tellep Distinguished Professor. “Hand-held, battery-powered instruments are available for some pollutants, and progress in sensor technology holds the promise of continued advances.”

Portable monitors driven by smart sensor technology, in Nazaroff’s view, can help emergency response teams by detecting contaminants in real time and predicting how they will disperse through the air.

In our own Berkeley Sensor & Actuator Center, EECS professor Richard White is developing an airborne particle counter that clips to a cell phone. The device would not only measure the particulate count in the immediate proximity of humans. It would also draw from the cell phone’s GPS coordinates to give government health agencies unprecedented precision in air pollution tracking and response.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

Albert P. “Al” Pisano
Acting Dean, College of Engineering
FANUC Professor of Mechanical Systems
Email Acting Dean Pisano