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  • CAREER COLUMN

Fixing equipment in the lab teaches life lessons

Female electronic engineer testing computer motherboard in laboratory.

Credit: Getty

The focus of my PhD thesis is examining ways of upgrading biomass to transportation fuels, and I regularly use a variety of analytical equipment and reactor systems in my laboratory at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

An expert is rarely on-site to assist with equipment repairs, which can range from simple tasks such, as replacing a used gasket on a vacuum chamber, to cumbersome rebuilds for pumps, furnaces, mass spectrometers and adsorption analysers.

Paying for specialist help is often financially out of the question — and, although reading through a manual for a broken stir plate might not be a bucket-list item, I have found, over the past four years of graduate school, that understanding and repairing equipment has given me more valuable experiences than I’d expected.

What I learnt from fixing a temperature controller

One key role of a chemical engineer working in industry or in the lab is process control — monitoring and controlling an operation to achieve the desired temperature, pressure, concentration or any other important parameter.

During my undergraduate studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, we were taught the fundamental theory, essential rules of thumb and computational methods for process control, but application of the knowledge was limited.

In the second year of my PhD, I had a chance to apply this knowledge when a power surge destroyed a previously functioning heater and temperature controller. This equipment worked in the same way as a household boiler and thermostat: tell the machine what temperature you want, and the system attempts to hit that target. Behind the scenes, control parameters determine how aggressively the system pursues that target.

After the power surge, the temperature controller would not power on. I enlisted the help of a fourth-year PhD student to diagnose and repair the damage. But, in the process of rebuilding, stored parameters in the memory of the temperature controller were lost.

I thought back to my undergraduate courses — and, after watching a few YouTube videos with the fourth-year student and checking Wikipedia, we successfully tuned and tested the rebuilt heating system. The process of diagnosing the problem, gathering relevant information and developing a solution was really empowering, and motivated me to continue fixing problems in the lab.

I was fortunate to take on this repair under the guidance of a more senior student, whose experience and patience was profoundly influential for me. In a graduate programme, it can be hard to find time to help others, so his efforts mentoring me were deeply appreciated and transformative for my future endeavours working with other students.

What I learnt from fixing a chemisorption analyser

A year later, I was trying to work out the structure of some catalyst materials that I had synthesized. Chemisorption, or the adsorption of vapour molecules in a sample, is a valuable analytical technique that provides information about the surface chemistry of a catalyst.

After being trained, I attempted to run my samples on our chemisorption system, but I found that the data were not reproducible. I spoke to some colleagues, and it became clear that the instrument was somehow malfunctioning, and so was being used only for basic qualitative analysis. For my purposes, it was important to fix the instrument so that the data collected from it were reproducible and quantitative. I got permission from the principal investigator in charge of the instrument, and teamed up with a chemistry PhD student to resolve the problem.

We ran a standard sample on the chemisorption instrument. This process would normally be automated, but we needed to catch the error as it occurred. We monitored the progress of the experiment for 12 hours. Taking turns watching the instrument and keeping notes, we discovered that a portion of the tubing was blocked: when gases were sent to this section of the instrument, pressure was building up. Only one small segment of tubing was plugged, and after we replaced that portion, the instrument was fixed. Our collaborative effort to diagnose the problem allowed us to fix this multi-user instrument, which continues to provide reproducible and quantifiable data.

We each had strengths that, combined, provided a balanced problem-solving dynamic. My colleague was good at communicating the problems that we were having with the instrument, and was patient when I was learning the basics. I was able to use some of my previous knowledge about reactor design to propose a solution.

By working with the chemisorption system, I learnt about its design and construction, and I discovered my strengths in a team setting. Once again, I found that fixing an instrument provided me with an enriched understanding of its operation, preparing me to further apply my knowledge.

What I learnt from fixing a porosity analyser

We use a porosity analyser to investigate the structure of pores in our catalyst materials. This equipment had been a workhorse for our lab and others for many years. Unfortunately, with no full-time users, a lapse in institutional knowledge and a lack of preventive maintenance, the equipment was deteriorating. Valves were worn out, tubing was leaking and a pump had seized up. Attempting to fix it involved some risk: it was out of warranty, and mistakes would result in a costly visit from a company representative. But with no action, the instrument would remain only marginally usable — requiring an extra two days for each experiment.

With the approval of my adviser, I again set out on a repair mission. In this complex system, I found it essential to remember that only a few small problems were preventing the instrument from running. As long as I could diagnose, research and fix the small things, the porosity analyser would eventually be returned to its functioning state. By trusting my skills, and spending many hours on the phone with a technical representative, I was able to finish the job. Fortunately, calls to the technical representative were free. But achieving this positive outcome required patience from my colleagues, my adviser and the technical representative, and had a number of ups and downs.

No repair is too small…

The deviations that I’ve made from my daily lab routine to fix instrumentation have provided opportunities for me to apply knowledge that I previously saw as merely theoretical. Once I’ve thoroughly diagnosed a problem — and once I’ve secured permission from my supervisor to try fixing it and have understood the possible risks — taking time to repair equipment in the lab has been very rewarding. I’ll be going through the rest of my PhD programme with the knowledge that no repair task is too small, trivial or insignificant to take on; that any broken instrument is worth fixing rather than replacing; and that failure is best overcome with tenacity, teamwork and patience.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01641-4

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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