Volume 12, Number 12 February 18, 2005

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Young PhD makes progress on pharmaceutical drying techniques

By David Hutton

Gareth Chaplin

Gareth Chaplin

Photo by David Hutton

The U of S has its own Doogie Howser. And although he may not be a teenage whiz-kid doctor working in the emergency room, at 26, Gareth Chaplin is significantly ahead of his peers after completing his PhD in Chemical Engineering last month.

“The university world is kind of a different world,” joked Chaplin. “It’s not the real world. And since I haven’t really worked in industry yet I still feel as if I’m 18!”

“I beat all my friends from high school to the PhD!” he continued, “But it’s pretty crazy, I never thought I could finish my PhD this young. In fact, at one point, I wasn’t sure I’d finish one at all.”

An undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick in 2000, Chaplin worked under the tutelage of Prof. Todd Pugsley.

After Pugsley took a job at the University of Saskatchewan, three undergraduate students who had worked closely with him, including Chaplin, decided they’d head west with their professor.

“[Prof. Pugsley] was a really good teacher and had a lot of interest in what he was doing. He was someone who would look out for you. So you knew that he had your interests at heart, not just his interests or the interests of the research alone. That made the decision to come here easy for me.”

But that did not stop his peers from joking to Chaplin about where he was going for graduate studies.

“People that I talked to before coming [to the U of S] said, hey, why are you going there? It’s so cold,” joked Chaplin.

“But the engineering program here is really good, there’s a lot of things they do really well here. Coming here has expanded my appreciation of engineering. I think the program here is great.”

After fast-tracking his master’s and writing the PhD qualifying exam (which he cites as one of the toughest hurdles he faced in completing his doctorate), Chaplin settled in to his research, which focused on the drying process of pharmaceuticals.

He looked at the fluidized bed drying of pharmaceutical granules. The unit operation dries the pharmaceutical powders by forcing air though them at such a high velocity that it causes bubbling and, thus, vigorous mixing.

This is similar to what you see in a pot of vigorously boiling water, explained Chaplin. By analysing pressure fluctuations collected throughout the drying process using a chaos analysis technique, Chaplin was able to detect changes in the hydrodynamics within the vessel, which could not be determined using traditional signal analysis techniques.

These changes may be critical in the application of this drying process in the production of future protein- or peptide-based and high-potency pharmaceuticals.

“This was really interesting to me because it was practical and because it was new,” said Chaplin. “A lot of pharmacists looked at this process but not a lot of engineers, even though it’s an engineering process.”

“So I was excited to be bringing something new to the actual industrial engineering process.”

Chaplin was also the first to apply Electrical Capacitor Tomography (ECT) to the drying of pharmaceuticals. This tomographic technique, similar to those used in medical imaging (such as CAT scanners), allowed for imaging of the inside of the dryer during operation throughout the drying process.

The information provided by this technique allowed for the interpretation of the results from the pressure fluctuation measurements. In the future, this sensor could be implemented industrially, giving operators valuable information about the changes in the process which may lead to product degradation.

Having his research partially funded by the government through an NSERC grant and an industrial drug company was an ideal situation, explained Chaplin.

“It wasn’t too controlled by the company but it wasn’t too controlled by me doing whatever I wanted.”

Now that his PhD research is complete, Chaplin has spent the past term as a teacher himself, something he believes is going to be a big part of his future ... but maybe not quite yet.

“I’ve really enjoyed teaching but I think I’m going to try to get into industry to gain a different perspective on engineering.”

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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