• Reigniting the… mid-1990s to mid-2000s

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      Peter Roberts

The fourth in our series of articles exploring IFRF’s archives…

As part of our commemmoration of IFRF at 70, and following on from contributions to our ‘Reigniting the…’ series in January, February and March from former IFRF Director Neil Fricker and former Investigators Giovanni Coraggio and Jarek Hercog (looking back to the key IFRF activities and outputs of the 2010-2016 period, the 2000s, and the evolution of the IFRF Solid Fuel Database respectively), we now travel back a bit further in time to the last few years of IFRF’s tenure at IJmuiden in the Netherlands.

Our ‘guide’ to this fascinating period of IFRF’s history is a familiar face to many of you – none other than Peter Roberts, a Visiting Investigator at IJmuiden in the 1960s who loved it so much that he came back as Director from 1978 to 2005!

Reigniting the… mid-1990s to mid-2000s – a perspective from Peter Roberts, former IFRF Director

Hello MNM readers.

You might be wondering “why ‘Monday Night Mail’?”  Well, on some Monday back in 1999 during the development of our new web-based communication service between IFRF and its Members (and potential Members), we set about writing the first weekly e-newsletter.  In those days ‘Content Management Systems’ were in their infancy and as my colleague Aristide Mbiock wrote the first html articles, the day wore on and it was Monday night before we mailed it out: That was the first ‘Monday Night Mail’ and the name caught on!  I’m happy both to see it appear regularly nearly two decades later and to contribute a few thoughts to this edition by looking back to the last 10 years of IFRF’s IJmuiden era (ca. 1995 to 2006).

In thinking about that period I was in a quandary; so much occurred… what should be highlighted… where should I start… what messages from the last years at IJmuiden are particularly relevant to IFRF Members today? Well let’s see.

After graduating, I chose a career in the iron and steel industry, no doubt attracted by the beauty of the sparkling streams of liquid iron and my fascination for the huge gas and oil flames fired in the 300-tonne open-hearth steel furnaces; that gave me my initial connection with industrial flames.

My first experience of IFRF and IJmuiden was as a short-term Visiting Investigator.   In the mid-1960s I had joined the Fuel and Furnaces Section at Swinden Labs in Rotherham, UK, working mainly on pilot-scale research and plant trials.  Frank Fitzgerald, who headed that team, was a strong supporter of IFRF and regularly sent young researchers to IJmuiden to participate in various flame measurement programmes.  These programmes were typically of several weeks duration, operating ‘around-the-clock’ and requiring three measurement teams.  Thus any visitor prepared to put in long hours on the furnaces was made very welcome!

I was immediately impressed by the rate at which information was generated and the cooperation within the teams (involving the Leaders – part  of the international group – and the operating/measuring/calculating groups – provided on a semi-permanent basis by Hoogovens Iron and Steel works).  However, it was the international cooperation aspects that caught my attention particularly.  Thus, when the opportunity arose, I applied for the role of IFRF Director, joining in the summer of 1978 and working alongside departing Director Sigfried Michelfelder until he left to join Steinmueller GmbH in late 1978.

At that time, IFRF was playing a key role in the development of combustion-modified, low-NOx burners, particularly for pulverised coal firing (primarily for power generation).  This expansion into the environmental aspects of fuels and combustion set in motion ideas about education and training, as the necessity of increasing the international pool of experienced combustion scientists and engineers was becoming rapidly apparent.

My early experience as IFRF Director led me to realise that while well-written, data-rich, research reports are important for information dissemination and creating a better understanding of flame processes, the experience gained in working with and measuring semi-industrial scale flames – typically 1-4MWth – gave the IJmuiden investigators invaluable insight and knowhow when addressing the problems of developing environmentally-friendly flames for the future and designing the combustion equipment to produce such flames at full industrial scale.

Typically, an Investigator was seconded to IJmuiden from an industrial Member Organisation for a period of three years, and generally there was a team of around six investigators in residence at any one time.  Thus while the ‘production’ of Investigators was clearly of a high quality, the ‘rate’ was in fact very limited.  As a consequence, we decided to explore expanding the Visiting Investigator concept for training purposes, with external funding.  To do this we set up a consortium comprising two IFRF Member Organisations with which we had developed a strong co-operation – Cardiff University in the UK (Professors Nick Syred  and Tony Griffiths) and the Enel Polo Thermico at Pisa in Italy (Sauro Pasini and Mario Grazidio).  To this we added an academic and industrial assessors team with Prof. Klaus Hein and Ambrogio Milani, both former IFRF investigators.  The objective was to give approximately six-month access to young graduate scientists and engineers at any one of the three cooperating laboratories, working on on-going research projects.  We approached the European Commission (EC) for funding, and the result was the EuroFlam Project (‘A Consortium of Large-Scale Facilities in the Field of Energy, Combustion and Environmental Combustion Technology: Research, Development & Training Transnational Access to Major Research Infrastructures’).

The project commenced in 1994 and, with an extension to include EC Marie Curie Training Fellowships, was completed around 2006 (although, as mentioned by Neil Fricker in his recent ‘Reigniting the… 2010s’ article, further extension activities continued after IFRF’s move to Livorno).

Was EuroFlam a success?  Yes, even in the short term it made a strong impact.  In total, approximately 175 Visiting Investigators ‘graduated’ through this programme (of which one third were women).  Of these, over 60 from 12 different European countries came to IFRF in IJmuiden, all contributing extremely well to the ongoing IFRF programmes.  In addition, EuroFlam provided a basis for an industrially-funded ‘daughter’ research programme – PowerFlam (2001-2006), managed by Neil Fricker, himself a former Investigator at IJmuiden.  One important aspect of EuroFlam was regular technical meetings of all Visiting Investigators who were invited to present results from their work: This rotated around the three participating laboratories and encouraged the development of a strong cooperative network, incorporating contact with the local IFRF ‘National Committees for Flame Research’.  Here are some key reports and information sources for EuroFlam and PowerFlam:

In 1997, IFRF’s governing council concluded that IFRF’s original business model needed overhauling.  Securing external funding for research was becoming increasingly difficult and, following input from consultants Arthur D Little, IFRF was restructured to form two organisations – a separate IFRF Research Station, set up as a limited liability company with a greater freedom of operation, and a networking function, IFRF Information Exchange (‘ifrf.net’), that would seek to take advantage of the IT and technology transfer tools that were becoming available and to promote exchange of information between IFRF Members.  ifrf.net commenced operation early in 2000.

Initially, I worked with Prof. Mikko Hupa and Nico Thijssen on establishing ifrf.net, commencing with rigorous communication with all IFRF Member Organisations to identify their information and networking requirements, communicating through the various National Committees for Flame Research.  The resulting operation was still based primarily on face-to-face networking, ‘Topic-Oriented Technical Meetings’ (TOTeMs) and the IFRF Conferences, which were the strengths of the Foundation.  To these were added a series of web-based resources similar to those we have today, designed to augment and to facilitate content communication between individual Members.

As the new millennium started, one programme in particular brought the IFRF Research Station closer to its steelmaking roots.  Working in cooperation with Corus RDT and NV Nederlandse Gasunie, IFRF researched so-called ‘high-efficiency combustion – excess enthalpy combustion’ (HEC-EEC), using a custom-designed facility incorporating advanced regenerative burners firing natural gas and coke oven gas.  The planning and research reports for this interesting work are available as:

  • Commissioning report HEC-EEC Furnace and Burners (part 1 of 2) (Van de Kamp et al) – IFRF Doc. No. C 108/y/1, 2003
  • Commissioning report HEC-EEC furnace and Burners (part 2 of 2) (Boss et al) – IFRF Doc No. C 108/y/2, 2004
  • Experimental Results from the HEC-EEC Furnace and Burners Firing Natural Gas(Hoppesteyn et al) – IFRF Doc. No. F 108/y/1, 2004
  • Experimental Results from the HEC-EEC Furnace and Burners Firing Natural Gas(Hoppesteyn et al) – IFRF Doc. No. F 108/y/2, 2004
  • Experimental Results from the HEC-EEC Furnace and Burners Firing Coke Oven Gas(Santos et al) – IFRF Doc. No. F 108/y/3, 2005

Sadly, this was the final large-scale experimental programme carried out at the IFRF Research Station at IJmuiden.  The financial burden of maintaining and staffing a high-quality experimental research station, coupled with Corus’ wish to reuse the land on which the IFRF had resided since 1948, led to IFRF deciding to close down IFRF Research Station BV and to seek a new home in which to base its operations.  Neil Fricker succeeded me as IFRF Director on my ‘retirement’ in October 2005, although I stayed on as a consultant during the next year to help to complete the research and reporting, and to wind up the Research Station.  In parallel, I helped Neil and his team close down the IFRF Office (by then situated outside of the Corus site) and arranging the transfer of Giovanni Coraggio – the last IFRF Euroflam Marie Curie trainee at IJmuiden – to Livorno, Italy.

I have mentioned some of the researchers involved in the EuroFlam project.  If I expressed my thanks to all those colleagues to whom I am indebted, the list would be very long.  But my thanks are due nevertheless.  Finally I would remark that if IFRF at IJmuiden was considered to be a success (and 60 years can’t be bad!), then the bedrock support of the ‘permanent staff’ was an essential ingredient and should never be forgotten.  The thanks of all IFRF is due to them – without them, and without Hoogoven’s original facility and the development of an international cooperation, there would never have been an IFRF.