life in the gas lane


Industrial chemist Ziggy Uibel performs at high octane.

Occasionally, one stumbles upon someone who convinces you, through a combination of training, tenacity and enthusiasm on an existential level, that they could do or be anything in this life.

Such is the case with Rory “Ziggy” Uibel, PhD ’03 who recently provided for a select group of non-chemists a tour of Process Instruments, Inc. Founded by Lee Smith, Process Instruments (PI) has pioneered Raman spectroscopy analysis for process control, primarily for refinery and petrochemical plants at sites that can be environmentally extreme, from arctic to desert and from tropical climates to off-shore locations.

If that sounds arcane, it becomes clearly grounded and articulated by the tour guide who leads an X Games-style stunt-double life as an extreme athlete. Even so, he’s categorically in his element as a chemist at the office and shop located in Research Park southeast of the University of Utah.

Uibel moves about the floor of PI with the wild-eyed energy of a kid in a candy shop. He might as well be on inline skates or skiing, two pastimes of his as a younger man. He is fond of picking up a dense spectrograph housed in something to the uninitiated that looks like kryptonite casing and dropping it with a satisfying thud on the bench to show how shockproof his product is.

It needs to be. A Raman analyzer uses a laser to excite a molecular vibration of molecules where a tiny portion of the incident radiation is shifted to a longer wavelength and produces a Stokes Raman scattering band. The wavelength-shifted Raman bands provide a structural fingerprint by which molecules in a sample can be identified. Process Instruments manufactures Raman instruments for not only extreme environments but for the rough handling of petroleum engineers. Its featured, online process monitoring provides updates in real time of up to seventeen different process streams per machine.

“We think of ourselves as more of an information company than an instrument company.” says Uibel. “A refinery with our real time information will be able to optimize stream blends and reduce giveaway of more expensive components,” such as octane.

PI’s optically fast spectrometer and low loss sequential optical multiplexer are paired with a set of fiber optic cables for exciting the sample and collecting the Raman scattering. At PI, the analysis and the machinery – from computers to the cooling apparatus and from the laser probes to the fiber optic conduits – can all be monitored and maintained remotely. Equipment includes back-up components and, if needed, are repaired or replaced on demand, by calling a certain mobile phone number at the other end of which is none other than Uibel (“Hi. This is Ziggy!”) who arranges to assess the situation and then often travels personally to the site to provide service.

This kind of customer service is legendary in the sector and has garnered the loyalty of clients who also benefit from rent-to-own set-ups that would otherwise run them $500,000. Most clients see a return on investment within two-to-four months, says Uibel with a grin. From a modest shop of five employees beginning in 1993, Process Instruments has grown to a staff of 16 and currently boasts a share of 20% of all U.S. refineries and 6% of the worldwide market.

But it isn’t just nerd-out technology that Ziggy’s team offers; it’s clearly encased in business acumen that is innovative and relentlessly hands-on with clients. “We are working on reaching approximately 60% total penetration with many of the individual refineries having multiple (5-10) instruments. The demand for instrumentation within the refinery markets has kept us quite busy and with the limited spare time we do have to continue to work on additional applications for our Raman instruments.”

Those applications are numerous — and always expanding. Petroleum products vary broadly from state to state, and nation to nation based on regulations related to clean air and other considerations. In addition to offering gasoline solutions such as reducing octane loss and the “giveaway” of Reid vapor pressure, (a common measure of and generic term for gasoline volatility), PI helps optimize jet and diesel fuel. The company also provides upstream solutions which optimize crude oil and offshore solutions. More than a dozen streams of samples can be analyzed with a single instrument/system. 

Uibel is also keen to talk about applications outside the fuel industry, including pharmacology packaging (using a unique Raman spectrometer to analyze each pill, for example) as well as food production and distribution. The petroleum industry may be the “low hanging fruit,” says Uibel, but the company’s Raman analyzers are also being used in tracing ppm sulfate detection in offshore waterflooding streams and direct determination of olefin concentrations in motor gasoline (US Patent No.7,973,926). Blood testing is already being done with handheld Ramen systems.

Bowling with brio on Grandeur Peak.

A Canadian by birth, Uibel has pretty much always had a dual life: one in the lab and one on the streets and the slopes where his athleticism really shines. In fact, chemistry did not appeal to him at all when he was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead, he was infatuated with aeronautics and while taking general chemistry courses researching a pressure sensitive paint for wind tunnel applications using a porphyrin molecule (water-soluble, nitrogenous biological pigment) Uibel worked with NASA and Boeing developing the paint and over time his interests shifted from aeronautics to spectroscopy.

Uibel wanted to continue his studies in spectroscopy for this purpose, and after asking around, discovered that Joel Harris’s name was at the top of everyone’s list. He decided that the University of Utah would be the ideal location for his graduate career. “I can easily say that coming to the U of U was one of the best decisions of my life,” he remarks.

That’s saying a lot, considering what Uibel’s life (and times) looks like these days, even as he’s entered middle age. What started as a seasonal gig as a “liftee” at Snowbird turned into a full “gap year” between his bachelor’s and graduate school at the U. Between skiing in the winter and rock climbing all summer near Elko, Nevada, he actually thought he would eventually find himself in a classroom teaching. That changed after earning his doctorate in analytical chemistry and landing a job at PI to design, assemble, test, calibrate and install Raman analyzers.

If this sounds like intensive work, it is. But Uibel is an intense man, and it seems to fit not only his inherent brio but also to play out and build on his activities outside of work. A globetrotter with clients from Canada to Singapore, and from Australia to off the coast of South America, Uibel has racked up a million-plus airline miles in no time (and without knowing he’d done so). This is an unassuming man who had to fetch his business card when asked what title he had at PI. (Turns out it’s Applications Manager or, maybe, Vice President of Technology.)

That’s not to say Uibel is a shrinking violet. As a youth he competed on MTV Sports as a stunt model. He recently completed the Rage Triathlon in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and he doesn’t stop at donning the Lycra for the swimming, bicycling and running competitions; he’s famous for summiting Grandeur Peak in Salt Lake Valley not once in a single day but a whopping five times (31 miles). The Peak has a special place in Uibel’s heart. Following the discovery of “misplaced” brick in his backpack compliments of his jokester friends, he started carrying a bowling ball and pins to the summit during the winter and bowling in carved-out lanes of snow “with an automatic return” (i.e., uphill). Stand-by participants who happen to be on-hand are awarded a tag for their backpacks emblazoned with “I Striked out on Grandeur Peak.”

“We try not to do it in the summer,” says Uibel. “Don’t want a bowling ball landing downhill on Interstate 80.”

Bowling on a mountain peak in the dead of winter? Why not? It’s consistent with Ziggy Uibel who has gone from his ambitions to be an aeronaut, a teacher, an academic and researcher, and purveyor of stunt double-inspired antics to, these days, an industrial chemist using the latest technologies and techniques to advance everything from petroleum refining to blood testing. 

By David Pace