Western Alumni

Hot COVID commodity

Alumnus helps create invaluable vaccine vials

By Tom Spears

Vaccine vials being created on the assembly line

Back in the late 1980s, a young Western science student kept thinking his buddies in engineering had more interesting homework than he did. So, Kai Jarosch switched into chemical engineering for his third year.

We should be glad he did. Jarosch, BA’92, MA’95, PhD’20, and his team at Corning Inc. in New York State designed one of the key processes for the production of the small-but-mighty vials required to hold precious COVID-19 vaccines – hundreds of millions of glass vials that can withstand the stresses of hot sterilization, frozen storage and fast movement along a production line. There’s no point in having vaccines if you can’t keep them safe.

Kai Jarosch
Kai Jarosch

Jarosch’s work on the product, known as Corning Valor® Glass, was done as senior chemical process engineer and manager of the chemical process design group at Corning.

Even at home, he loves making new concepts work, according to his wife, Judy. He likes to tinker, and once built a tiny steam engine “just to see how it worked,” she said.

Corning has been making glass stronger since it created PYREX® oven-proof dishes in 1915. The company sold the PYREX® consumer product line, but today, some of Corning’s most well-known products include Corning® Gorilla® Glass and mobile display components. Vials, said Jarosch, are a growing market for Corning.

Ordinary glass has been used for pharmaceuticals for more than a century, but it’s not ideal, Jarosch explains.

Glass is very strong if it is in perfect condition, but tiny imperfections on the surface can lead it to break down and shed tiny flakes of glass into the contents, called delamination, potentially damaging the medication.

Valor Glass eliminates glass delamination in pharmaceutical vials. Sodium-borate evaporation is not possible. As a result, Valor Glass containers have a uniform, chemically durable drug-contacting surface.

Ordinary glass can also develop microscopic cracks that allow air to come in, letting oxygen react with the drug and making it less effective. Valor Glass is inherently strong and damage-resistant, making it better able to withstand extreme events during pharmaceutical processing. There’s also a risk of breakage at the pharmaceutical factory when batches of vials are filled and sealed because vials inevitably bump together.

“The breaking of vials during filling is a place where you lose production time,” Jarosch said.

A single broken vial means workers have to shut down the high-speed line, remove all the vials, clean up and start over – at a time when pharma companies are trying to turn out vaccine doses by the millions.

To strengthen Valor Glass, Corning immerses it in a bath of molten salt solution. Potassium ions (electronically charged particles) in the solution migrate into the glass surface, replacing the smaller sodium ions originally in the glass. As the glass cools, the larger potassium ions compress the glass together, creating a compressive stress layer that forms a tough surface.

“We were ready to meet demand, even in the face of a global glass vial shortage.” – Kai Jarosch

It is essentially like trying to fit a size 10 foot in a size nine shoe, creating stress in the glass surface that actually strengthens it, so the vials can jostle safely.

Valor also has a coating that lets vials slip past each other without sticking during production.

“Valor Glass’s exterior coating and chemical strengthening enables smoother filling operations by reducing glass-related interventions, enabling lines to run at much higher speeds with improved yields,” said Jarosch.

Another benefit of Valor Glass is that it can withstand intense heat during sterilization and extremely cold temperatures during deep-freeze storage.

Corning started work on Valor Glass about a decade ago, long before any thought of the current pandemic, which gave the company a head start. “Our hard work and the need linked up perfectly,” said Jarosch. “We were ready to meet demand even in the face of a global glass vial shortage.

His work today has roots back at Western.

Born in London, where his father was studying biology at Western, Jarosch grew up mostly in Prince George, B.C. When his high-school friends headed for universities in Vancouver and Victoria, he wanted a bigger leap. He had childhood memories of London and decided to travel east.

At Western, he met his wife, who was studying for a master’s in journalism. The couple remained in London while he completed his master’s and PhD degrees.

Jarosch spent much of his career doing chemical engineering in Ohio for a company called Velocys. But in 2015, he was out of work when new owners decided to lay off many of the research staff. “I wasn’t too busted up about it because I had reached about the apex of what I was going to be able to do there,” Jarosch said. “Their little nudge out the door was just what I needed.”

Then he saw the job posting at Corning.

“Five seconds before I found the job posting at Corning, I had no idea I’d be working with glass,” he said. He’d been making synthetic crude for Velocys.

Kai with his parents, Sharon and Conrad Jarosch, at his PhD graduation in fall 2000
Kai with his parents, Sharon and Conrad Jarosch, at his PhD graduation in fall 2000.

He credits Western with giving him the tools to adapt to this new area.

“We had a really wonderful focus at Western on the fundamentals,” he said, and this paid off decades later. “I just went back to basic chemical engineering fundamentals and started applying those. Having that foundation was just critical.”

He loves the work he’s doing at Corning, where he finds the technical problems challenging, interesting and impactful.

“This is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done ... being able to provide vials that are meeting a critical need for the U.S. and the rest of the world,” Jarosch said. “It’s super satisfying.”

His former supervisor at Western, engineering professor Hugo de Lasa, recalls the young undergraduate made an early good impression.

“Kai has this personality which is pretty determined to do things,” de Lasa said. “He had already this special combination of technical interest and interpersonal skills – which are pretty important in industry.”

Professors, like sports coaches, draft the top talent available for their research teams, “and Kai was one of them,” de Lasa said.

“He loves to solve problems,” said Judy Jarosch, MA’91. “It is creative to take [an idea] from the concept to something that works every time.”

His love for tinkering extends to the home front, she said. He has a little furnace for melting bronze, copper and other metals and makes copies of objects he has found in nature – a horseshoe crab, a bird’s skull, an acorn.

“He just does it for fun and gives them to people as gifts,” Judy said. But she hopes he will one day show them at a local gallery.

When teaching young engineers, Jarosch shows a scene from Apollo 13 in which NASA engineers help the three astronauts gather up the only equipment available and work out a way to save them.

Valor Glass, his wife said, has given them both a sense of hope in dark times. So does the garden where they have planted garlic, peas and an apple tree.

And now, the third Jarosch generation is at Western.

The couple’s daughter, Ada, is entering her second year of biology this fall.