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New approach needed to prevent major 'systemic failures'
Date:1/31/2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University researcher is proposing development of a new cross-disciplinary approach for analyzing and preventing systemic failures in complex systems that play a role in calamities ranging from huge power blackouts to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the subprime mortgage crisis.

"The striking similarities in such catastrophes necessitates a broader perspective to better understand such failures," said Venkat Venkatasubramanian, a professor of chemical engineering. "In the history of systemic failures, a few disasters have served as wake-up calls. The Flixborough chemical plant accident in the United Kingdom in 1974, where a Nypro UK plant explosion killed 26 people, was one such call."

Other such major catastrophes, he said, include a 1984 Union Carbide accident in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 2,000 and injured more than 100,000, and the 1988 failure of an oil platform operated by Occidental Petroleum in the North Sea, which resulted in 167 deaths and about $2 billion in losses.

"Such systemic failures are not limited to the chemical and petrochemical industries," Venkatasubramanian said. "The Northeast electrical power blackout in 2003 and a recent massive recall of drug products are both systemic failures. Financial disasters such as Enron, WorldCom, the subprime mortgage derivatives crisis and the Madoff Ponzi scam also belong to the same class."

The need for a new cross-disciplinary framework to address such systemic failures was introduced in an article appearing in the January 2011 issue of the AIChE Journal.

"We must study all disasters from a common systems engineering perspective so that one can thoroughly understand the commonalities as well as the differences in order to better design and control such systems in the future," Venkatasubramanian said. "There is an important role for universities here, as well, in creating and disseminating knowledge
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Contact: Emil Venere
venere@purdue.edu
765-494-4709
Purdue University
Source:Eurekalert

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