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Laser Analyzes Combustion

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AMES, Iowa, Dec. 6, 2007 -- A high-speed system of lasers, mirrors and cameras is being built to analyze combustion inside engines, power generators and heating systems, with the ultimate goal of reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

A fuel derived from biomass could produce too much soot when it's burned in a combustion chamber designed for fossil fuels. But finding the source of the problem isn't easy, as an engineer can't crawl inside the flame zone of a highly turbulent combustion chamber and take measurements.
Iowa State University mechanical engineering assistant professor Terry Meyer is building the high-speed laser system in the foreground to analyze the performance of combustion systems and components such as the parts he's holding. (Photo: Bob Elbert)
"It's fairly obvious when a combustor is not running well and producing a lot of soot and other pollutants," said Terry Meyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University. "But then how do you solve that problem? To do that we can open up the black box and look inside the combustion chamber itself."

The tools that Meyer is developing to do that are highly sophisticated laser-based sensors that can capture images at thousands and even millions of frames per second. Those images record all kinds of data about what's happening in the flaming mix of fuel and air.

"The goal is to probe this harsh environment to provide the knowledge required to reduce pollutant emissions and enable the utilization of alternative fuels," Meyer said.

By selecting lasers of different wavelengths, Meyer's combustion sensors can record where pollutants such as soot, nitric oxide and carbon monoxide are being formed. The sensors can also look for unburned fuel and capture data about fuel sprays, fuel-air mixing and energy release.

Meyer's lab is now working on a two-year project to develop and advance laser techniques that are expected to help engineers improve the combustion systems that move vehicles, produce power and heat buildings. An important goal of the project is to analyze and improve the performance of alternative fuels in modern combustion systems.

Meyer started working with laser diagnostics when he was a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The work continued when he spent six years as a scientist developing and applying laser techniques for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

He moved to Iowa State in 2006 and started applying some of the military's sophisticated laser technologies to civilian applications. And now Meyer's system of high-speed lasers, frequency conversion units, mirrors and cameras is being built in his Multiphase Reacting Flow Laboratory in Iowa State's Black Engineering Building.

The impact of his work could be felt far beyond his lab. Meyer said his research aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, which currently account for 85 percent of the world's energy use. 

His research is supported by an $87,000 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state economic development program. The grant is supplemented by a contribution of products and engineering expertise from Goodrich Corp.'s Engine Components unit in West Des Moines, a producer of fuel system components.

Energy company ConocoPhillips is supporting similar projects in Meyer's lab as part of the company's eight-year, $22.5 million research program at Iowa State. Meyer's research is also drawing interest and support from sources such as NASA and the US Air Force.

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Dec 2007
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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