Wednesday July 30, 2014

Firing on all Cylinders

Absolute Combustion is burning with bright green ideas
Absolute Combustion Photo

An illustration of the new high-efficiency natural gas burner developed by Absolute Combustion. Applications for the technology include steam assisted gravity drainage operations in the Alberta oil sands.

Darsell Karringten was only about ten years old when he had his life-changing epiphany.

He was traveling on Vancouver Island with his family, a group of musical entertainers on their way home from their latest show, listening to the news on the radio. The man on the radio was an industrialist in the forest products game, who was being grilled about pollutants that had been spilling into nearby watercourses from one of his mills on the Island.

“The guy said, ‘Yeah, so, what’s the problem?’” remembered Karringten.

The industrialist argued that his contribution to the economy trumped any impact his work might have on the environment, even stating that he wasn’t concerned about the pollution caused by his operations.

“‘But you have children, right?’” said the interviewer, according to Karringten’s recollections of that conversation.

“‘Yes, I have children,’” said the industrialist.

“‘Well, don’t you want to make it a better place for them? Don’t you want to see how you can clean that up for your kids?’” the interviewer continued.

He replied: “What do I care? I won’t be here.”

“And here was his answer that triggered me at that age,” said Karringten. He was astonished.

“I didn’t just hear what I heard,” he said. “He doesn’t care? He’s not going to be here; so, big deal? What his statement did was trigger my interest in the environment. But I didn’t know where to start.

“I just knew somebody better pay attention,” he added.

It was the first step on a long journey toward founding Absolution Combustion International (ACI) and building possibly the most efficient and environmentally friendly natural gas burner on the planet, the Absolute Extreme Burner.

The burner boasts higher fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than previously existing technology, which was important to Karringten considering his concerns about climate change, air pollution and the effects of emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The technology, which is still undergoing tests, could be used by oil sands producers for applications such as steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), as well as plastic recycling operations.

Obviously, Karringten didn’t jump straight into building natural gas burners after discovering his concern for the environment. He was only ten years old at that time, after all. It would actually take decades and another revelatory moment to bring him to that point.

“By the time I had children,” said Karringten, “I started inviting all kinds of different scholarly people … over to the house to have discussions on the environment. This is going back almost thirty years.”

It was the discovery that he was about to be a grandfather for the first time that finally inspired Karringten to move from discussion to action.

“I said, ‘Enough is enough!’” he explained. “I can talk about the environment until I’m 100, but that isn’t going to do anything to improve things.”

Karringten sat down with his daughter, the mother of his first grandchild, Koleya Karringten, and they set the wheels of Absolute Combustion International in motion.

Inspiration struck.

“I couldn’t sleep,” said Karringten. “I was restless. And I had a vision of the kind of burner that would work. And I brought it to a mechanical engineer, a drafting engineer, instrumentation people, a master machinist. And we worked together.

“Three months later we had an initial design.”

That first plan didn’t involve natural gas, however.

“We started on propane,” said Karringten. “We started with propane because it was an easy, portable fuel.  We didn’t need all the infrastructure. You could work in your garage. Just get a twenty pound tank and run it for a little while, learn what you could learn. But when we needed to do the testing necessary for industry applications, it was really hard to complete the testing with propane. Because you needed a large supply to run a proper test for hours on end.

“That’s why we switched to natural gas.”

There were other challenges along the way, too.

“Sometimes, it’s one or two steps forward,” he continued. “Sometimes, three or four steps forward. And, all of a sudden, there’s a giant step backwards.”

One of those giant steps backwards concerned the noise generated by the burner.

“Isn’t it wonderful and exciting that the burner creates all this noise?” Karringten joked. “Oh, my god, harmonics!  It sounds like a jet engine! This is exciting!”

Fully aware that the level of noise would stand in the way of companies adopting the technology, Karringten and his crew set out to solve the problem with all the means at their disposal, including contacting professionals who had done similar work with NASA. They put together a team that set up sound equipment throughout the test location to assess the noise created by the burner, eventually developing a solution to that problem.

“The heat came before the issue with the sound,” said Karringten, discussing the other big challenge.

“It just kept getting hotter and hotter,” he continued. “Some of the carbon steel tubes would start to melt. Our question became: ‘My goodness, what do we do with this?’

“So, once again, three or four steps forward, and, all of a sudden, this massive step backwards.”

The team subsequently spent over a year developing a heat jacket to cover the combustion chamber.

“It worked beautifully,” said Karringten.

His family has been the driving force encouraging Karringten to tackle the obstacles en route to his final destination.

“Grandchildren,” he said. “I don’t know why that can be a trigger point for people, but it was a huge one for me. It was as if there was no other option, no matter what, it has to be done.

“Many times, I just wanted to pull out the rest of my hair and give up,” he added.

“That’s not an option.”

Karringten hopes that particular aspect of his journey resonates with other people who may be pursuing a similar dream.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “There’s an opportunity. You’ve got to follow your dream. You need to do everything you can to work hand in hand with industry in a cooperative way to show them that there’s a strong possibility here that could benefit them as well.”

Karringten knows that the powers that be in industry and government don’t always recognize the economic value of an environmentally friendly technology, but he also suggested that it is the responsibility of the people designing and developing that new technology to make the economic case for their product.

“If your solution is going to cost industry too much more to be green, nobody is going to listen,” said Karringten. “They may cheer and they may applaud. However, when they leave that room, you’re not going to get another phone call. It’s just not going to happen. So, you’ve got to find an economically viable way to show them that going green is worth it.

“At every turn, that’s what ACI continues to do.”

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