A cool flame

University of Wyoming engineering professor Erica Belmont works with equipment in her lab Thursday at the University of Wyoming.

SHANNON BRODERICK/Boomerang photographer

A small lab is full of equipment. A pressure chamber — a large metal tube with small protruding windows — occupies most of the room, the second half occupied by a complex device with laser devices and a sophisticated burner.

All to figure out exactly is what is in a flame and how it can help in future technology.

Erica Belmont, assistant professor in the University of Wyoming department of mechanical engineering, has studied combustion for years.

“A big part of my background is flame measurements — how can we better characterize flames, how can we better understand the chemistry of flames,” she said. “That’s what the core of that low-temperature flames grant is going to be.”

Low-temperature flames can seem counterintuitive — most fire produces heat. This research is flipping that idea upside down.

“We’re used to high-temperature flames, like what we use in our engines,” she said. “We know a lot more about those — they’re studied a lot more. Low temperature combustion is a little less of an understood phenomenon.”

Low-temperature flames are short-lived, making them difficult to study, Belmont explained. However, her lab is capable of sustained testing because of the pressure chamber.

“That gives us a real advantage because now we can observe them, we can take measurements of them,” she said. “We have a unique ability to look at these flames.”

Several machines in the lab are capable of testing the flame’s chemical composition and other specifics, said Hadi Hajilou, a graduate student working with Belmont.

“This is a pressure chamber with a vacuum pump,” he said. “The reason we have to do that is — in low pressure, flame thickness is higher, and we’re trying to take samples from the flame in different locations.”

Another device utilizes lasers and a flat-flame burner to determine soot content in a flame. Instead of the flickering flame most of us are used to in a campfire or match, the specialized burner creates a much more consistent flame which resembles a cone-shape emission of a jet engine on afterburner.

Testing on the International Space Station is about the only other place such testing can be done, Belmont said. Her ability to test these flames on Earth in a much more cost-efficient setting was a large part in her receiving up to a $750,000 grant from NASA.

“Our goal here is to understand the chemistry,” she said. “If we can understand the chemistry, then we can do things like model these flames and better understand what’s going on on the space station and how we can harness them.”

Practical effects of such research could come into play with engines and engine knocks, as well as possible uses in future energy systems, she said.

“If you have a low temperature system, you aren’t as constrained in terms of materials, and you don’t have as much energy lost,” she said.

An initiative by the mechanical engineering department in combustion originally drew Belmont to UW.

“Erica’s the leader of this combustion focus we have, not just within the department but in the School of Energy Resources as well,” department head Carl Frick said.

The focus is in its initial stages, but Frick is hopeful the combustion research could become a top-tier program at UW.

“Ultimately, if we were able to form a federally-funded center focused on this subject, that would be a goal that’s reasonable somewhere in the 5-10 year timeframe is not out of the question, given the success we’ve seen so far.”

Belmont is not alone in her efforts. Several graduate and undergraduate students are assisting in the efforts, although each plays a special part.

Emily Beagle has a National Science Foundation grant for her work on utilizing biomass in current combustion and energy plants.

Most power plants do not use biomass, such as what’s available in trees killed by mountain pine beetles, because coal is cheaper than creating and transporting biomass products. However, Beagle is taking the price into account for her studies.

“We looked at forest service funding, the money they’re already putting into managing forest beetle kill, and explained they could use that money to incentivize power plants to use this fuel,” she said.

Investigating the economics of Beagle’s research could be a large reason she received the grant, Belmont said.

“Emily’s work has been very interesting because she integrates experimental work with technical challenges and the economics and the policy,” Belmont said. “We try to look at the larger picture.”

Belmont’s research has begun growing out of her lab space in the Engineering Building, especially if more grant funding comes to her various projects.

“We are bursting at the seams,” she said.

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