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Sparking combustion through impingement transfer

UWO engineering teacher earns patent for flameless oven geared toward metal-melting industry

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April 21, 2023

OSHKOSH – Years of research and development recently paid off for Pawel Olszewski, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UWO).

The Poland-native inventor was recently granted a U.S. patent for his new invention – the flameless impingement oven.

The oven – which transfers heat by impingement transfer rather than by conventional radiation and thermally induced convection – was built completely on the UWO campus in the Teaching Energy Research Industrial Lab (TERIL).

He said he established the TERIL at UWO to provide hands-on opportunities for students, as well as laboratory infrastructure for his research.

Through trial and error, Olszewski said he and his students were able to get the oven to work and prove the concept – earning a patent earlier this year.

How it all started
Olszewski, who worked in gas and oil companies in Poland for 10 years before moving to the States, said he began the patent process for the oven in 2019.

Although his first contact with flameless combustion was when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, Olszewski said he didn’t decide to continue his work with energy process optimization – one of them being the industrial oven – until he moved to UWO in 2014.

And while flameless combustion technology is well established, Olszewski said it isn’t used very widely in the industrial sector, where he has experience.

// Olszewski said the oven is intended for the metals industry where melting iron, cast iron, steel and aluminum is needed – because it can reach temperatures hot enough to melt any type of metal. Submitted Photo

Being involved in the industrial sector for many years himself, Olszewski said he has a vested interest in making the flameless impingement setup – which aims to increase efficiency and productivity, emit fewer pollutants (nitrogen oxides) and reduce fuel consumption – commonplace.

He said his oven in particular is intended for the metals industry where melting iron, cast iron, steel and aluminum is needed – because it can reach temperatures hot enough to melt any type of metal.

However, Olszewski said those examples are just scratching the surface of the oven’s capabilities.

Other industries it can service, he said, are the glass industry, crude oil processing and coal pyrolysis – any industry where high-temperature heat is required.

Olszewski said he hopes the oven can eventually be utilized in the power generation industry – which requires more research, but said he has confidence it can happen.

Student, university support
Olszewski said he has been working on the oven project with students for the last four to five years through their independent studies.

He said he teaches his students to think critically, which in turn gives them essential skills for whatever career field they’re going into.

Olszewski said the process itself was full of trial and error.

“There is no single piece of the equipment that was purchased in the state it’s in,” he said. “Everything was purchased as a component. We cut the frames, we organized our own control cabinets, everything here including the software that controls all of the systems (we created).”

Olszewski said the process for heating is very intense.

Because the air and gas are swirling at such speeds inside the oven, Olszewski said it’s “like a huge tornado” – with the chemical reaction to produce extreme heat occurring everywhere all the time.

He said the chamber – which is a foot tall, a foot wide and a foot deep – sometimes reaches temperatures of more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Everything mixes and the gas is always meeting the oxidizer,” he said. “So when you look inside the furnace during the normal flameless operation, there are no flames. You have combustion, but no flames. Natural gas oxidizes, reacts with the oxygen, generates heat, but there is no flame.”

Olszewski said the “Eureka!” moment happened in June 2020 – the oven worked without any sight of a flame, which he said was the main point of his research.

“I am a researcher, a more lab-oriented person,” he said. “I want to show that something is working, and now of course, I use any opportunity to talk about the idea, but my main purpose is to prove that something is working.”

Olszewski said he was confident enough in his research and experience that he knew his design would work.

However, he credits the support he received from WiSys – a Madison-based nonprofit dedicated to helping inventors protect their intellectual property – for helping him take things to the finish line.

// Olszewski said the oven’s chamber sometimes reaches temperatures of more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Submitted Photo

Without the direct help of WiSys, which submitted the patent application on behalf of Olszewski, he said the oven might not have been fully finished.

He said the organization also helped connect him to companies within the industrial sector and was instrumental in getting the patent into place.

Olszewski said the university is supportive of both faculty and student research projects – with a focus on research-enhanced teaching.

“Because I teach in the engineering program, I always want to help students,” he said. “Students come and help me with research, supporting their credits at the university.”

Olszewski said he is convinced the experience students get through academics coupled with their independent research gets them that much closer to finding a job in their field.

He said the faculty also benefit from the support they receive from the students interested in research – which he said was critical with the oven project.

Spark change
One of the most inviting capabilities of the oven, Olszewski said, is the ability to retrofit existing technology with this new technology.

Although, with natural gas cheaper, the impetus to change technologies isn’t high on many companies’ to-do lists.

“There are not many places where the engineers take care of the combustion itself,” he said.

Olszewski said the old mantra – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – plays a heavy role in the engineering field, especially in the metals industries.

“As long as the ovens are working, as long as they melt metals and they are in operation, it’s quite hard to push forward new technologies,” he said. “But, I hope it will spark and move forward at some point.”

Olszewski said this is part of why the system’s retrofitting capabilities are a plus.

“You don’t necessarily need to replace a full system, just pieces of it,” he said. “The true beauty of this technology is in the innate ability to scale, whether it’s a small oven or a large continuous operation.”

Olszewski said his goal with the prototype was to convince those in the industry of the benefits this kind of machine could bring rather than what “should work.”

Knowing Northeast Wisconsin is known as an industrial hub – filled with many companies that have a need for molten metal – Olszewski said he hopes a local company will express interest so the idea can grow beyond the single prototype.

“I’m hoping it will catch somewhere,” he said. “I think there can be many modifications to this technology. It’s about the right analysis, heat transfer, everything. It’s about the right time and the client.”

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