Experiments fuel development of clean combustion

Mechanical Engineering Chair and Professor Darrel Guillaume works with undergraduate Yves Medrano on the combustion chamber, which is fabricated to provide exact control of air, fuel flow and the mixing of all kinds of fuels.

Photos courtesy of CEaS.

With an eye toward curbing harmful particle emissions and mitigating the impact of global warming in the near future, Cal State L.A. faculty and students are working to increase combustion efficiency.

The Center for Energy and Sustainability research team, which includes investigators from mechanical engineering, civil engineering and computer science, believes that by optimizing the combustion process and allowing fuel substances and air particles more time to react, they can reduce the circulation of pollutants that are harmful to humans and the environment.

“When we talk about pollution, we are often referring to gaseous emission like carbon monoxide and unburned fuel, but one of our main foci is also to study particulate emissions that have carcinogenic properties,” said Mechanical Engineering Professor Trinh Pham.

“The hope is that we can optimize combustion for all common fuel types (primarily in transportation and power generation applications) such that we can reduce both types of emissions when we run our automobiles or airplanes, or when we want to generate power,” she explained.

Fuel combustion—which involves the burning of fossil fuels, such as petroleum, natural gas or coal—is the country’s most widely-used, reliable and cost-effective source of energy production. And while biofuels made from renewable energy sources are being used more often as a substitute to fossil fuels and as a means for diversifying energy use, little has been done to address concerns about pollutants released during combustion.

To “clean-up” the process, CSULA researchers are investigating several aspects related to combustion and fuels. One group, for instance, is working to characterize and optimize combustion in current and emerging fuels by altering the rate in which fuel and air are introduced in an engine, temperatures, and amount of time the reactants have to mix together, among many factors.

Others are testing the effectiveness of fuel additives in improving combustion properties, working to enhance engine performance by using a controls approach, and even developing mathematical modeling programs to better understand and characterize the properties and emissions that result from burning biofuels.

“Biofuels are very unpredictable because we don’t burn them as much, and plant matter can vary greatly in different blends,” said Mechanical Engineering Chair and Professor Darrell Guillaume. “But, it’s our goal to change that and develop an engine that can adjust or allow for the efficient combustion of all different fuel types.”

The team is aided in this research by a unique combustion chamber, fabricated to provide exact control of air, fuel flow and the mixing of all kinds of fuels. The chamber also provides precise measures of unburned hydrocarbons and pollutants to determine the system’s efficiency.

“There is really so much more to combustion than meets the eye,” said undergraduate fellow Yves Medrano, who has participated in the research project over the last two years as a Cal State L.A. student and summer intern. Medrano has helped develop techniques for collecting emissions for testing and analysis, and he maintains the Center’s combustion chamber.

“It’s been a great experience,” he added. “Working in the center, I have seen myself grow as an engineer, I’ve seen my input being valued by Ph.D’s and grad students. It’s really created a feeling of self-worth, where I now think, ‘Wow, I can really make a difference; my input matters.’”