Why is heart surgery like drilling for oil and gas?

True innovation can mean finding solutions in unlikely places. At ExxonMobil, we’re constantly seeking new ways to help us take on the world’s toughest energy challenges. Sometimes that means looking in the last place you’d expect, like the hospital.

Several years ago, an ExxonMobil engineer found himself on a flight seated next to Dr. Alan Lumsden, a cardiovascular surgeon with the renowned DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center at Houston’s Methodist Hospital.

It was a fortuitous seating assignment.

During the course of their in-flight chat, the two realized that despite working in seemingly unrelated industries, their professions actually have one important feature in common: pumps and pipes, which are critical tools used to assure flow, whether in the human circulatory system or in oil and gas development.

Their conversation would lead ExxonMobil to a joint collaboration with Methodist Hospital and the University of Houston to explore the similarities between the medical and petroleum industries. The fruit of this partnership can be seen in a fascinating conference – the annual Pumps & Pipes Symposium – that brings doctors together with oil and gas engineers to spark solutions to problems both face. The sixth gathering of this groundbreaking collaboration gets underway next week.

Pumps & Pipes is already challenging old ideas and leading to new innovations in both medicine and energy. At last year’s gathering, a representative from an oilfield-services company spoke on the use of open-hole swell packers (similar to the small dinosaur figures that swell to 10 times their size when put in water) to section off zones in wells. As a result, medical researchers are now considering the idea of using expanding polymers to stop leaking from aneurysm repairs in the human body.

Similarly, the energy industry is considering the work of doctors who battle circulatory infections in order to create new ways to prevent pipeline corrosion.

Pumps & Pipes is more than just a conference. It’s a testament to what can happen when the best minds across industries collaborate and learn from each other – something to think about the next time your seatmate attempts to strike up a conversation in the friendly skies.