Things go wrong. Ideas fail. And, sometimes, somebody else finishes first.
But if you’re Dr. Kenneth McGill, that’s when you go with the flow. And, along the way: Disprove a 139-year-old science theory. Build a better flow-meter. Get Georgia College its first-ever patent.
“I’ve come up with something that’s really a fundamental discovery in acoustics that hasn’t changed in over 100 years, and so that’s crazy exciting,” said McGill, chair of chemistry and physics.
It took 20 years of false starts, outright failure and bureaucratic delays - as well as 30 students, a 256-inch pipe, 128 microphones, 512 cables and financial support from Georgia College - for McGill to realize his dream.
U.S. Patent #9,441,993 was issued Tuesday, Sept. 13, giving Georgia College ownership of McGill’s new theory: the “Conduit Bound Propagation Separation Model.” The method will lead to constructing a better flow-meter to measure fluids in interstate pipelines worth trillions of dollars a day.
The patent brings a new level of distinction to the university, showcasing success in its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, said Kenneth J. Procter, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Everyone expects patents and research start-up companies to spin off from big science and engineering doctoral universities. Dr. McGill’s patent demonstrates that ground-breaking science is a vital element of the Georgia College liberal arts mission,” Procter said. “Our students are the big winners” working with “great faculty like Dr. McGill in exciting, hands-on labs.”
Over the years, undergrads constructed “bits and pieces” of the flow-meter, pushed buttons when directed by computer code and got “just a glimmer of how things work” by graduation. Five students currently collect data. They’ll help write findings in science publications and co-author anything McGill publishes.
Senior chemistry major Arthur Shue of Madison has worked with McGill more than two years. The “idea of the unknown” intrigued Shue, who said it’s rewarding to work on “something bigger” than himself. He hopes his contribution will help get him into medical or graduate school.
It’s “an overwhelming feeling,” Shue said. To “create something that has never been before – is pretty surreal.”
The patent is “mind boggling” to many science undergrads, who apply sound-wave theory to almost everything they learn. Junior biology major Kathryn Peterson of Powder Springs said “This will change everything!”
Although not vital to her future as a veterinarian, Peterson appreciated what happened Tuesday.
“I am so impressed,” she said. “I mean, honestly? To think that a professor in our own school has evidence, has been doing this research - and to challenge a scientific theory that’s so old - this is cool.”
About half of all U.S. interstate commerce travels through pipelines. Industries like petroleum, pharmaceutical, chemical and mining must know precisely when materials begin and stop flowing. Businesses can’t afford to lose a single drop of expensive commodities like gasoline, oil, coal slurry or water.
“That’s money going down the pipeline. So they always argue about who started first and how fast it’s flowing,” McGill said.
Previously, the only way to measure was by drilling a hole and inserting a turbine or metric bar. Pipes had to be shut down, stopping production and profits. Holes also increased risk of leakage and need for repairs.
As a post-doctorate research scientist at the University of Florida, McGill hoped to change this by attaching two microphones to a pipe and sending in a sound wave. That research failed. Truth was: Sound wave doesn’t travel in one direction. It moves both ways and bounces all over, giving erroneous results.
“These pipes are very noisy, almost deafening,” McGill said. “You can’t hear anything, because it’s just rumbling. To get rid of that, you’d have to have sound wave that’s 10 times louder than a Led Zeppelin concert.”
In 1992, McGill became a professor of chemistry and physics at Georgia College but never forgot his quest. By 1996, he improved the idea. But it wasn’t until 2002 - an “ah-ha moment” - he realized it’s better to go with the flow.
“Instead of trying to brute-force it by getting louder sound,” he said, “you just use the sound that’s already there. It’s a very Zen kind-of-thing. There’s a kind of karma in the fact that the information’s there. You just need to listen in the proper way.”
McGill’s students started building a flow-meter in the basement of Herty Hall. They connected microphones to the outside of a pipe, hooked by cables to an elaborate system of knobs, voltage meters and amplifiers that measure sound waves.
McGill couldn’t get a patent until 2008, when Georgia College completed its intellectual-property policy. He filed - only to discover a Connecticut company had beaten him to it, patenting their flow-meter in 2004.
Devastated, McGill mulled over results produced by the flow-meter. Readouts showed the expected “sloped line” discovered in 1877 by John Williams Strutt, best known as Lord Rayleigh. That theory of sound is still used by acoustic engineers today.
But McGill’s flow-meter recorded “other lines” in addition to the slope – curves that weren’t supposed to be there. McGill thought he was doing something wrong. But as students fine-tuned the device, extra lines didn’t go away. They got more pronounced.
Simply put: The English physicist considered air in his equations - not modern materials moving at tremendous speeds.
“So all of a sudden these curves are not supposed to be there but they are there - and I just proved why they should be there,” McGill said. “This is a goose-bump moment for me, because great discoveries are not made when you say ‘Ah-ha.’ Great discoveries are made when you say, ‘Hmm. That’s funny.’”
Since flow-meters apply theory, Georgia College’s patent “supersedes” the Connecticut method, allowing McGill to manufacture a better device without paying royalties. He’ll either make a deal with the Connecticut company or one in Chicago recently interested in investing.
Making a “whole new discovery in science” feels “fantastic,” McGill said. But he expects his work to be “hotly contested.”
“When you go against somebody as big as Lord Rayleigh, who’s been around for over a hundred years,” he said, “most people aren’t going to believe it.”