• Reigniting the… 1950s – a very special Dutch bicycle recalls how IFRF’s wheels were set in motion

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      Philip Sharman

      IFRF Director

Hello, readers!

For IFRF, the 1950s really began in 1949.  Yes, this organisation was certainly ahead of its time!  Hot on the heels of the discussions and communications that had led to its birth, its first combustion trials got under way at the brand new industrial-scale experimental furnace built by Hoogovens in the Dutch coastal city of IJmuiden.

Take a close look at what’s probably the earliest surviving photo of the shed-like building housing that remarkable facility.  That’s me, casually and unobtrusively leaning against a wall away to the left.  But make no mistake – I was anything but anonymous as I forged a role as a key member of a team that was to prove its mettle (or, in my case, metal) during pioneering days that started to write the modern textbook on combustion science.  Yes, as the wheels of this visionary new organisation began to turn, so did mine.

Confused?  Perhaps I should explain.  Because there were, in fact, two of us.  Bikes, that is.  And before you dismiss the importance of our part in the story – me, a sturdy Batavus ‘Old Dutch’ model, and my compatriot, a single-speed Opafiets Gazelle ‘Dutch Roadster’ (just making it into the right-hand edge of the photo) – I’d respectfully invite you to think again.  Think of how we literally helped to propel combustion science forward in those formative years by carrying luminaries in luminous radiation back and forth – whatever the weather – between the furnace and the room allocated to those experts in Hoogovens’ Central Laboratory.  Think too of the countless conversations we overheard as our riders discussed their ground-breaking work while they pedalled along.  Yes, thanks to a curious kind of osmosis, we grew very familiar with all kinds of technical topics, ranging from oil-flame emissivity and burner variables, to carburetting and fluid mechanics.  How many other bicycles can honestly say that?

Not that conversation was always guaranteed.  Sometimes those to-and-fro trips to the flaming furnace simply degenerated into highly competitive, hell-for-leather sprinting contests between the young IJmuiden Investigators.  But my fellow Dutch bike and I effortlessly rose to the challenge, drawing rich inspiration from a very different type of flame – the Olympic variety – and the gold-winning exploits at the 1948 London Games of Dutch legends Fanny Blankers-Koen in the athletics stadium and Nel van Vliet in the swimming pool.  Yes, we were only too delighted to be able to oil the wheels of seminal advances in combustion science in whatever way we could – and in doing so we really did give a whole new meaning to the term ‘combustion cycles’!

But let’s return briefly to those conversations we were privy to as we were being propelled along or propped against a convenient (exterior) furnace wall – conversations sometimes conducted in a curious hybrid of French, English and Dutch (or ‘Frenglatch’ as I used to think of it).  Well, they clearly counted as cutting edge – a cutting edge whetted by the leadership, influence and guidance of the many great names who, in a range of capacities, helped to determine the direction of the new organisation; these included J.E. de Graaf, Jan van Langen, Reg Mayorcas, Marcel Michaud, Michel Rivière, G.W. van Stein Callenfels and Meredith Thring.  It really was fascinating stuff and, even after the Hoogovens furnace house had been superseded by IFRF’s iconic Furnace No.1, I retained my well-informed amateur interest in the remarkable breakthroughs secured virtually non-stop as the 1950s unfolded.

All of which makes me, I’d like to think, an ideal ‘guide’ to take you on a kind of cycling tour of that heady, unique decade – the critical first laps of IFRF’s journey, a crucial era of foundation and forward momentum both for IFRF itself and for the influential, fast-developing field of combustion research.  These were amazing days of serious science and serious fun – exemplified by pivotal technical advances on the one hand and regular furnace-house ‘sleepovers’ on the other – as IFRF started out on its quest to secure a kind of scientific ‘yellow jersey’ befitting a budding world-leading research organisation.

As I’ve already mentioned, 1949 saw the commencement of fully-fledged trials utilising Hoogovens’ IJmuiden facility but undertaken by the new international initiative.  From what I overheard, these studies focused on topics relating to luminous radiation and its role in determining furnace efficiency and heat transfer.  The fledgling team knew that better understanding in this area was vital to securing increases in flame emissivity, which were in turn essential to boosting the performance of the open-hearth furnaces widely relied on across industry.  Using an experimental flame 5m long and 1m in diameter, that first series of performance trials examined the effects of variables such as fuel quantity, fuel type, combustion-air quantity and jet momentum, and generated a succession of discoveries: for example (and I think I’ve got this right…), I’m sure I heard one of my riders mention that oil flame emissivity increased and decreased depending on the characteristics of the fuel jet, on the heat arriving at and radiating from this fuel-jet, and on the mixing of air and burnt gases.  To be on the safe side, it might be worth you checking out the IFRF archive for the details of this initial suite of game-changing research:

  • Flame Radiation Research Joint Committee: report of 1949 trials at IJmuiden (1951)
  • Flame Radiation Research Joint Committee: report of 1949 trials at IJmuiden (1952)

In this embryonic era, important progress was also achieved in assessing the accuracy of different measurement techniques, and in the adaptation, installation and testing of heat-flux meters, pyrometers and other clever-sounding equipment that was destined to become part and parcel of the combustion research toolkit.  Indeed, it was already clear to me that the whole enterprise was rapidly building up momentum and that none of the team was planning to apply the brakes – especially not mine!

This was a period when drive, invention and creative thinking were to the fore, and where a freewheeling (!) spirit and an endearing off-the-cuff quality seemed to go right to the heart of everything – whether it was a question of performing running repairs on ‘make-do’ equipment that nevertheless produced the high-quality measurements vital to delivering high-value science; or of ‘importing’ technical instruments via the nocturnal Harwich/Hoek van Holland car ferry in a manner not necessarily consistent with scrupulous completion of laborious documentation or the payment of all the requisite import fees!

One iconic episode that typified these times was the legendary ‘broom handle’ incident.  In common with other key parts of the combustion research community, IFRF increasingly recognised the importance of the recirculation of combustion products and gases in and around flames.  The phenomenon of external recirculation had been discovered by eminent British researcher Jack Chesters and Jack (literally) swept away any scepticism about his breakthrough by inserting a broom handle into the IJmuiden furnace at a place where he knew recirculation would be evident.  Hey presto, the smoke did indeed go backwards!  And so too, I recall, did the broom’s immediate prospects of extensive future employment…  Jack went on to play a major role in IFRF’s history as chair of the British Flame Research Committee throughout much of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, becoming a Vice President of IFRF from 1981 to 1986 – it must have been a very good broom!

At a very human level, too, things were on the move – and not just in terms of riding a bike.  In 1950, key team members decamped to the Netherlands with their families, taking up residence in brand-new houses built by Hoogovens in Velsen-Noord, just across the IJ river from IJmuiden.  An initially small residential team – primarily young scientists and engineers – was established, supplemented by visiting investigators of highly variable cycling skills.  By this stage, the organisation had already been set on a firmer footing with the foundation of the Flame Radiation Joint Research Committee, not least with an eye on facilitating the dissemination of research results.  This had followed on from the inauguration of the British, Dutch and French ‘National Committees’ for Flame Radiation Research, which had really provided the bedrock of the whole venture.  The USA (with Professor Hoyt Hottel of MIT playing a pivotal role) and Belgium would soon follow suit, joining the endeavour as the 1950s began to slip through the gears.

It’s fair to say that IFRF’s work in that decade rewrote the rulebook for burner and flame engineering.  The initial concentration on radiation in oil flames was complemented later in the 1950s by an additional focus on pulverised-coal combustion (which attracted German interests in the organisation).  Vital new ground was also made in understanding furnace fluid mechanics – an advance that saw healthy international competition, though not necessarily selfless international collaboration, as Thring and Newby in the UK and Craya and Curtet in France independently set about developing equations for quantifying external recirculation and ‘distorting’ isothermal models.  Energetic efforts also focused on meeting the relentless need for specialised instruments vital to turning visionary thinking into experimental reality – highly innovative work that certainly wasn’t a case of ‘reinventing the wheel’ (groan)…

Through a combination of performance trials and combustion-mechanism trials, further insights were secured into flame radiation generated by a range of burners.  For example, these studies pinpointed the importance of external recirculation to the type of flames used widely in industrial furnaces, opening the way to a better understanding of how flame length could be controlled and stable ignition ensured (though, I must admit, I struggled to grasp some of the finer details).  Data from the trials also helped to illuminate the link between flame emissivity and a fuel’s carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, plus the key influence that fuel and air mixing had on flame radiation – discoveries that clearly gave the team considerable cause for satisfaction.  The team would prove that, for oxygen-enriched flames, high flame temperatures could be generated without adversely affecting high flame emissivities, while the fields of fluid mechanics and combustion aerodynamics were also areas of increasing focus.  Again, all the details of this highly influential, highly varied work and much more besides are potentially right at your fingertips in the IFRF archive:

  • Flame Radiation Research Joint Committee: report of burner trials at IJmuiden (1953)
  • The radiation from turbulent jet diffusion flames of liquid fuel/coke-oven gas mixtures: performance trials nos. III, IV and V (1956)
  • The effect of mixing conditions and air preheat on the radiation from liquid fuel coke-oven gas turbulent jet diffusion flames: performance trials nos. VI and VII (1957)
  • Comparison of different methods of fluid-atomizing oil flames and the effect on flame emissivity and radiation of the addition of carbon black to liquid fuels: performance trial no. VIII (1959)
  • First experiments at IJmuiden on the combustion of oil using oxygen (Kissel, Michaud), (1962)

But the 1950s wouldn’t just see remarkable technical achievements.  ‘Riding shotgun’ with – and indeed underpinning – these were a range of key developments in terms of facilities and organisation.  Arguably the most important (and the one that had the biggest personal impact on me, as it meant I’d have to find a different wall to lean against) was the decision to scrap the existing furnace and build a brand new one, as well as a new office for the IJmuiden Investigators.  Officially ‘lit’ in October 1953, Furnace No.1 was 6.25m long, had a square 2m by 2m cross-section, worked with a wall temperature of up to 1600°C and had sidewalls equipped with eight vertical slots enabling in-flow measurements to be taken.

And just to maintain the transport theme, you know the old saying about how you wait for a bus and then two come along together?  Well, following a Joint Committee decision to branch out into coal research, November 1955 saw inauguration of another new furnace – this time for coal flames.  I particularly remember the coal preparation plant sited right next door.  I always wondered whether they considered the alternative option of preparing the coal elsewhere, just a short bike ride away.  But I guess, where transporting reasonable quantities of solid fossil fuel is concerned, bicycle panniers aren’t really a practical long-term solution…!

Performance trials on pulverised-coal duly commenced in 1956, with combustion-mechanism trials following a year later.  A key achievement was the production of a full 3D picture of a pulverised-fuel flame (using radioactive tracers to reveal mixing patterns, I believe) and a much clearer understanding of exactly what went on inside such a flame with regard to the combustion of volatiles, for instance.  Naturally, information on this and other pioneering coal-related work carried out in the late 1950s is securely stored for posterity in the IFRF archive:

  • Research on pulverised-fuel flames by the International Flame Research Foundation (1960)
  • Observations on experiments carried out on the combustion of pulverised coal (Loison, Kissel), (1962)

Even to a non-expert like me, it was obvious that all of this leading-edge activity was only possible thanks to the steady growth and evolution of the organisation through the 1950s.  Core funding from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) from the middle of the decade; an expanding team of Investigators; an increasing number of industrial organisations coming on board, including the pioneering utilisation of international ‘research partners’ (e.g. United Steel Companies’ Swinden Laboratories in the UK and the University of Grenoble in France) and subcontractors to help conduct specific trials (e.g. SOGREAH, the Société Grenoblois d’Aérodynamique et d’Hydraulique) – developments like these provided the strength and stability that would prove crucial to IFRF’s success.  And the massive strides taken by the organisation were underlined indelibly in November 1955 with the formal creation of IFRF as a non-profit-making organisation operating within Dutch law.

Looking back at the 1950s now, it really was an incredible period of vision, belief, insight, creativity and commitment – a remarkable mix which unleashed a whirl of activity, energy and progress that really could make your head (or your wheels) spin.  All I can say to conclude this blog piece is that it was a huge privilege to be part of the peloton!


‘E.E.N. Fiets’

I hope that MNM readers will excuse the slightly whimsical nature of this blog piece: Sadly, the passage of the years has reduced our cadre of ‘guides’ for this particular era in IFRF’s history. My defence is that the views ascribed to ‘een fiets’ are firmly rooted in those of J.E. de Graaf and G.W. van Stein Callenfels – the two Dutch ‘founding fathers’ of IFRF – from a paper they co-wrote with János Béer concerning the first 15 years of IFRF’s activity (IFRF doc. no. K 20/a/8, 1963), and from interviews that Roman Weber conducted with Meredith Thring – the UK founding father – Hoyt Hottel (USA) and two of the earliest IFRF Investigators Reg Mayorcas (UK) and Michel Rivière (France), in writing his book ‘The Spirit of IJmuiden – Fifty Years of the IFRF, 1948-1998’, published on the 50th anniversary of IFRF in 1998 (ISBN: 90-801495-2-7), the first three chapters of which were reviewed by Messrs. Thring, Mayorcas and van Stein Callenfels. I am indebted to Neil Fricker for contributing to this piece.

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