Investigating the Boundaries of Physics
Simple boxes containing human organs crisscross the globe every day, regularly saving the lives of transplant patients. Unfortunately, many patients do not receive a transplant in time because the tissue cannot be preserved long enough to be matched with a recipient. Some tissues and many cells, such as blood or sperm, can be cooled to preserve them for weeks or even years without deterioration. Other tissues-such as corneas and cartilage, do not hold up well. As ice forms, moisture leaves through the cell surfaces, causing damage to the structure of these living tissues. In addition, evaporation from the surface of the tissue during the preparation for cold storage may further damage the tissue or, alternatively, aid in its preservation.
At first, evaporation might seem like one of the simplest and most straightforward of processes. Yet, until recently, it was still too complex for engineers to predict from molecular processes. In fact, many industrial processes involve interfacial phenomena that appear equally simple. The result? The efficiency of everything from oil sands processing to the preparation of cosmetics is compromised by our limited ability to describe what is happening.
Janet Elliott is among the leading specialists in a new thermodynamic theory formulated to address some of these difficulties. Her work has already demonstrated remarkable links between events in the exotic sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics and events in the much more familiar everyday world around us. Elliott and her colleagues have been hailed for verifying such links by comparing theory and established experimental results.
Called Statistical Rate Theory, this approach provides far more detail about the behaviour of particles at an interface. Nevertheless, the theory is still trying to win support within the scientific and engineering communities. Only a few stringent tests have been designed for proving its validity and expanding its applications.
As the Canada Research Chair in Thermodynamics, Elliott intends to remedy these shortcomings. Working closely with other University of Alberta researchers in catalytic reaction engineering, oil sands processing and biomembranes, she foresees a much wider acceptance of Statistical Rate Theory in a number of areas. She also foresees the potential for application of a better theoretical description of challenging physical processes, such as evaporation. It is a model that she hopes will address difficulties, such as the preservation of transplant tissue.