Partnership Funds Biofuel Research

Author: Jan Mathew
As his company gears up for innovative engineering challenges, John Storm (BSMetE ’77), founder and president of Indianapolis-based Contour Hardening Inc., has recruited a team he knows and respects: researchers at Purdue’s new Center for Metal Casting Research (PCMC).

John StormIn fall 2008, Storm accelerated this industry-academic partnership with a two-year, $40,000 gift to the center designated for support of research related to a new ignition system for biofuel engines — or, in United States Patent and Trademark Office-speak, Patent No. 7533643.

“Internal combustion engines consume gasoline efficiently, but they don’t burn renewable fuel sources the same way,” says Storm, who secured the patent in May 2009. “The three components to this are fuel, oxidizer, and ignition source, and I’m focusing on ignition source improvements.”

Specifically, Storm’s invention “utilizes extremely rapid heating of materials by induction heating to produce a series of controlled hot locations within a combustion chamber to produce uniform initiation of combustion.”

Concurrently, Storm’s gift to PCMC enables undergraduate and graduate student teams to conduct research involving materials selection and the testing of materials behavior in order to maximize the system’s efficiency and extend the longevity of its components. Under the direction of Matthew Krane and David Johnson, associate professors of materials engineering, work in the center supports Contour Hardening’s progress in engine design.

“Testing of insulation, coatings, thermal shock, and thermal fatigue are critical,” Storm says. “For example, PCMC’s research can indicate subsets of materials or coatings that would improve the relationship at the top of a piston. My company takes that information and makes modifications to our tests and procedures.”

“John has the basic design, but there are many restrictions on the materials he can use,” Krane says. “We’re gathering preliminary data to weed out materials that won’t work reliably in a real engine.”

Progress is rewarding, but value also lies in the partnership’s potential.

“This is an excellent intersection of interest and capabilities,” says Krane of the PCMC-Contour Hardening union, “and, down the road, we foresee opportunities for our researchers to work on the actual piston head design and combustion process.”

Even further along the path is the point of convergence where biofuels are very efficient to produce, and are burned with equal efficiency by combustion engines. It’s a milestone Storm believes could be reached within the next decade, particularly when powered by an academic-industry partnership.

“I support the center’s direction to be a premier location for materials engineering and research, and its commitment to pass learning along to industry,” he says.

“Larger companies that once worked on incremental advancements are no longer as active. Instead, fundamental research is taking place in small, agile companies with a compelling reason to work on step function, or a big change in efficiency. And, historically, internal combustion engines are due for a change.

“There’s great value to being patient, innovative, and proving yourself over the long haul. That’s what Purdue engineers are trained to do.”