• Reigniting the… 1970s

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      Sigfrid Michelfelder

– a perspective from Sigfrid Michelfelder, former IFRF Investigator and Head of Research Station

Hello MNM readers,

Here are some of my memories of IFRF in the 1970s and my involvement in it.

Leaving the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras – where I had spent two years as an assistant professor of chemical engineering – in mid-1970, I joined the IFRF investigator team led by Tom Lowes, then Head of Station.  When answering phone calls during my first few weeks, I was often welcomed as the ‘new Indian investigator’ due to my accent from my time in Madras:  Quickly, I changed my initially-perceived role from being a German investigator employed by the German VGB organisation to an international IFRF team member who happened to come from Germany (via India)!

The IFRF research programme of the early 70s was focused on heat transfer and combustion aerodynamics (assigned to Brian Smith and myself), aerodynamic model studies and the important contract research financed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Together with a permanent Dutch team of about 25 people, 10 highly interesting furnace trials were executed up until 1974.  After an investigation into the ignition stability of coal flames (‘C’ series trials), the majority of the furnace trials investigated the effect of flow dynamics and heat sink arrangement on heat transfer from natural gas flames (‘NG’ series) – including multiple-burner systems (‘MJ’ series) – and mathematical modelling validation (‘M’ series).  Key reports on these trials – still relevant today – are available from the IFRF Archive:

  • Convective heat transfer from impinging flames: Results of the NG-3 trials (Vizioz, Lowes), IFRF doc. no. F 35/a/6 1971
  • Convective heat transfer from impinging tunnel burner flames: Detailed experimental results from the NG-4 trials (Smith, Lowes), IFRF doc. no. F 35/a/10, 1974
  • Investigations into the combustion of natural gas in multiple burner systems (Fricker, van Heyden, Michelfelder), IFRF doc. no. F 35/a/5, 1971
  • Preliminary report on the MJ-2 trials (Pai, Smith, Walmsley), IFRF doc. no. F 35/a/8, 1974
  • Report on the M-2 trials (Michelfelder, Lowes), IFRF doc. no. F 36/a/4, 1974

In between these various trials, the EPA-financed ‘air pollution’ trials (AP-1, AP-2 and AP-3, using natural gas, coal and heavy fuel oil) were conducted, aimed at reducing combustion-generated NOxemissions from fossil fuels through burner and combustion modifications.

Outside of the USA, the only combustion products regarded as pollutants where sulphur oxides, unburned hydrocarbons and particulates.  NOx emissions were not widely understood in European industries, although this situation slowly changed in the mid-70s when European governments started to work on regulations restricting NOx emissions, as well, due to their effect on ozone formation and contribution to ‘acid rain’.  The EPA trials provided excellent results that formed the basis for low-NOxburner design for many years.

The EPA trials also opened-up other topics on pollution control from fossil fuel combustion and triggered the first IFRF-funded (AP-4) trial in 1974.  This sequence of reports from the IFRF Archive tells the full story:

  • The measurements of pollutants in flames and furnaces (Heap, Walmsley, Holthuysen), IFRF doc. no. G 19/a/2, 1972
  • Investigations to define the influence of burner variables upon nitric oxide formation in natural gas and pulverised coal flames (Heap, Lowes, Walmsley, Bartelds, Le Vaguerèse), IFRF doc. no. F 37/a/2, 1977
  • The optimisation of aerodynamic design variables to control the formation of nitric oxide in fossil flames (Heap, Lowes, Martin), IFRF doc. no. K 20/a/70, 1974
  • Report on the AP-4 trials (Smith, Lowes), IFRF doc. no. F 37/a/1, 1974

IFRF trials were normally set-up with a ‘trial leader’, who also had the responsibility of presenting the results in a trial report.  However, furnace trials were executed in three-shift-per-24-hour mode, involving all available investigators as ‘shift team leaders’, supported by a team of furnace operators and technicians.  Consequently, everyone’s role continually changed from being in charge of a trial to being a service-provider for another trial.

In a clever policy adopted by the IFRF’s Joint Committee (JC), international academics/engineers seconded to the Research Station by the National Committees stayed only for a 3-4 year ‘term’, thereafter returning to their home country to further develop their professional career.  Thus it became common practice that every four years a new team of eager young engineers, willing to enter the combustion research world in fair competition with highly qualified international colleagues, was mixed with experienced remaining IFRF investigators whose term was not yet completed.  Consequently, in 1974 Mike Heap, Ray Walmsley, Patrick le Vaguerèse, Brian Smith and Head of Station Tom Lowes all left the IJmuiden research team and I was asked by the JC to remain at IJmuiden and take over the role of Head of Station.  The few remaining team members from the old team where Claude Bertrand, Henk Bartelds and Ram Pai whose term was about to end in July 1975.  New investigators joining the team in 1975 were Jay Rajani, Roy Payne, Jean-Bernard Michel and Rolf Graf.

As a foundation, IFRF worked on the basis of an annual budget financed partially by member contributions (around 50% at that time), with the remainder usually covered by four-year grants from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and, more latterly the European Commission (EC).  The 1974-1977 R&D programme was submitted for approval to the EC’s Directorate-Generals (DGs) for Steel, Coal and Social Affairs.  Unlike the prior periods when funding had been secured from the ECSC, the ultimate decision from the EC for this programme, communicated to IFRF in 1975, was unexpectedly negative.  Furthermore, talks to continue the research activities for the EPA failed and, as a consequence, IFRF slipped into a serious financial crisis.

Since a substantial increase in member contributions to balance the budgeted costs for the research program was considered impossible by the JC, it was decided to develop a ‘minimum’ R&D programme for 1975, and I was requested to prepare for the closure of the IFRF Research Station with effect from 1st January 1977.

I protested against the closure.  During my four years’ experience at IFRF I had come to appreciate fully the value of an international research organisation that not only performed continuous, excellent combustion research at an industrial scale, but also provided a superior post-university career development path for young, motivated engineers.

My simple but daring answer to the JC’s question of what alternatives could I offer, was to develop contract research – daring because the only experience IFRF or I had with this type of activity was the EPA contract, the anticipated continuation of which had just been declined!

However, the EC’s disappointing decision didn’t exclude the possibility of obtaining support for specific research packages from EC bodies in the form of contract research.  This required IFRF to adopt a different approach, submitting proposals on a project-by-project basis EC’s DG for Steel and Technology and/or the DG for Social Affairs.

In spite of the hesitant reaction of the JC – due mainly to the substantial financial risks – and the open question of who would carry the responsibility for a contract-based organisation, I decided to use the available time to at least try to show that my suggestion offered a solution.  We had a well-sized experimental research facility suitable for combusting a wide range of fuels which was reasonably well-maintained, and the new water-cooled furnace replacing the old Furnace No. 2 offered additional capacity for industrial research.  With a minimum of 5-6 investigators and a permanent team of 25 employees, we could perform a maximum of 20 weeks of furnace tests per annum, allowing for maintenance and adjustment between trials.  After evaluating the overall minimum budget required for the team, we decided to offer our services to the EC and others in testing proprietary or development burners for the fuels we had access to.

IFRF was one of few organisations worldwide capable of handling such a wide range of fuels (coal, blast furnace and coke oven gas, natural gas and light/heavy fuel oil, etc.), with accompanying aerodynamic investigations.  From this we derived the minimum income per test-week, accounting for fuel costs and special preparatory work.  Splitting IFRF’s business plan 50:50 between research work for members (covered by member contributions) and contract research, meant that we had to secure 10 weeks of contract furnace tests for 3rd parties.  Furthermore, we planned to offer instruments and measurement probes, developed by IFRF for furnace measurements, and other services, to potential clients.

We also concluded that in order to make such a change to IFRF’s operations, we needed an adapted organisational structure and to become fast and flexible in trial preparation and execution.  As a result, with the JC’s approval we implemented a new structure from the end of 1976, with me acting in a ‘CEO’ capacity (in today’s terms), supported by Guus Holthuysen as ‘CFO’ and Roy Payne as ‘COO’.  With this new structure in place, we embarked on securing the necessary research contracts from the EC, national governmental bodies and directly from industry.

Gradually the relationship with the EC was rebuilt and modest funding was provided by the DGs for Steel and Technology, and Social Affairs, as a contribution to the IFRF programme on multiple burner tests (MJ-3), mathematical model trials (M-3) and combustion-generated noise trials (AP-5).  A second contract on pollution abatement was signed with EPA in April 1977 and research proposals to the Ministry of Public Health in Netherland were accepted in 1978/79.

In addition to these publicly-funded research contracts, numerous medium- and short-term contracts for various industrial partners were acquired.  26 such contracts were executed between 1974 and 1980, squeezed in between member trials and comprising tests of several weeks’ duration, such as the oil shale combustion tests for L&C Steinmüller (Germany) or short-term testing of proprietary burners for Bloom Engineering (USA), Ghelfi (Italy), De Jong-Coen and Diuker (Netherlands), and Lurgi and Korf (Germany).

Meanwhile, the members research programme between 1974 and 1980  addressed a variety of important topics, with key reports available from the IFRF Archive as follows:

a)  Mathematical modeling trials (1974-75) – creating data for industrial furnace designers using a range of fuels and mixtures thereof, with preheated and oxygen-enriched air:

  • An experimental investigation on the influence of operational and design variables on heat transfer to the furnace hearth: Report on the M-3 trials.  Part A: Cold heat sink (Pai, Bartelds, Michelfelder), IFRF doc. no. F 36/a/6, 1975, and Part B: Heat sink with varying temperature (Bartelds, Pai, Michelfelder), IFRF doc. no. F 36/a/7, 1977

b)  Industrial burner testing on the influence of variables on heat transfer, chemical pollutants and combustion-generated noise (1975):

  • Report on the AP-5 trials (Bertrand, Michelfelder), IFRF doc. no. F 37/a/3, 1978

c)  Investigation of heat transfer from multiple burners to a water-cooled hearth (as used in M-3 part A and AP-5 trials) (1976):

  • Report on the multiple burner trials – MJ-3 (Payne), IFRF doc. no. F 35/a/11, 1977

d)  Heat transfer from industrial oxy-fuel burners impinging perpendicular on water-cooled circular heat sink (1977):

  • Convective heat transfer from impinging oxygen-natural gas flames: Experimental results from the NG-5 trials (Rajani, Payne, Michelfelder), IFRF doc. no. F 35/a/12, 1978

e)  Comparison of boiler type and cement kiln burner behaviour firing low- and high-ash coals (1977-1979):

  • A preliminary study of boiler type and cement kiln type burner arrangements firing both low- and higher-ash coals: Report on the C-17 trials (Graf, Payne), IFRF doc. no. F 32/a/42, 1981

f)  Scaling rules applicable for combustion systems (in cooperation with the UK’s Central Electricity Generation Board) (1979):

  • Investigation into scaling of combustion systems: Report on the O-18 and O-19 trials(Salvi, Payne), IFRF doc. no. F 31/a/52, 1981

g)  Blast furnace gas as a fuel in high-temperature furnaces (1978):

  • The use of blast furnace gas as a fuel in high-temperature furnaces of the steel industry: Report on the G-1 trials (Michel, Payne), IFRF doc. no. F 01/a/100, 1979

The securing of industrial research contracts not only quickly stabilised the financial situation of the IJmuiden Research Station, but they also contributed substantially to the growing ‘know-how’ of the investigator team – inclusive myself.  We quickly learned how to apply research results to industrial processes in a wide range of industries.

As a result of this success, the prospect of closure of the Research Station was off the agenda, and, by the end of 1978 we had even built up financial reserves equivalent to an annual budget.  Therefore we started to employ members for a new research team in 1978.

Amongst the new intake of investigators in 1978 were Gérard Flament (author of last month’s ‘Reigniting the…’ MNM piece) and Peter Roberts (who wrote the ‘Reigniting the…’ piece back in April), who was recruited as my replacement as Director of Research Station.

I left IFRF in September 1978 to become chief of the R&D department at L&C Steinmüller in Germany.  In this new capacity, I placed a series of industrial R&D contracts with IFRF, including the investigation of low-cost, in situ SO2 capture  – see last month’s piece from Gérard for more details.

From 1983 onwards I disappeared into the upper management ‘strata’ of L&C Steimüller and lost direct contact with IFRF, although I managed to keep contact with at least to some of my former colleagues in IJmuiden.  Unfortunately, some of these friends have since passed away, including three investigators with whom I shared my IFRF time – Mike Heap, Roy Payne and (recently) Ludger van Heyden.

I hope that IFRF can preserve some of the invaluable ‘spirit’ that was generated at the Research Station in IJmuiden.  It provided a wonderful environment for the formation of truly international research teams with a minimum of internal and external hierarchy.

Sigfrid Michelfelder

 [Ed. – thank you, Sigfrid, for taking the time out from your busy schedule to tell us a bit about those heady days in the Netherlands.  Your brave decision in the mid-1970s certainly saved IFRF’s research programme, and there is much we can learn today about daring to do things differently.]