David Blunck

Welty Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor David Blunck’s research focuses on four domains: combustion, ignition, radiation, and energy. In his Combustion, Ignition, Radiation, and Energy Laboratory and Propulsion Laboratory, he and his team study practical energy conversion (such as jet engine combustion and propulsion) and natural energy conversion (such as forest fires). His research has applications in fields as diverse as aviation and wildfire management.

Blunck hopes to establish a multidisciplinary fire center to contribute to fire management understanding and help communities prepare for and increase their resilience to wildfires. He also envisions Oregon State’s combustion research program becoming one of the strongest on the West Coast—for good reason, he believes, given the extraordinary level of expertise within his own lab and among his colleagues in the College of Engineering.

Before joining Oregon State in 2013, Blunck earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University in 2010, then worked at the Turbine Engine Division of the Air Force Research Laboratory, where he was the lead investigator for fundamental combustion research related to gas turbine combustors and pollutant formation. He co-led a team of engineers in designing and testing the world’s smallest combustor for use in advanced gas turbine engines. He completed his B.S. in mechanical engineering at Brigham Young University in 2005 and his M.S. in mechanical Engineering at Purdue in 2008.

In one of his current research projects — an international collaboration funded by the Federal Aviation Administration — Blunck is seeking to help streamline the costly and cumbersome process for screening alternative aviation fuels, such as biofuels or coal-based fuel. “Currently, the lengthy process costs millions of dollars and requires the manufacturer to produce large amounts of the new fuel, which then undergoes testing in airplanes on the ground,” said Blunck. Fuels that make the cut are then tested in flight — another costly step that still may not result in a viable fuel. But Blunck, using a relatively simple burner and small volumes of fuel, hopes to help determine more quickly and inexpensively which fuels to weed out early in the process and do not warrant full-scale testing. “By eliminating unsuitable fuels early on, the successful ones will become a reality sooner,” he said.

In another study, funded by the Joint Fire Science Program and conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, Blunck is investigating the rate of ember generation during forest fires. During large burns, embers can be lofted high into the air, travel miles on the wind and drop to earth to ignite new fires. “Our biggest concern is at wild/urban interfaces where civilization is surrounded by wilderness,” he said. “A rain of embers can threaten homes and other property, even if they’re miles from the main fire,” The work involves, in part, lab studies in which various forest materials are burned in a wind tunnel to quantify how pieces break off to generate embers, and how different parameters — moisture content, size, material, shape — change their behavior. The research will proceed to controlled burns and measurements of ember production rates in the wild. Such knowledge about the physics and chemistry of ember production could lead to predictive tools that enable incident commanders to dispatch resources more effectively to protect lives and property.

In a third study, funded by the U.S. Navy, Blunck is seeking to advance the technology used in pulse detonation engines — a ground-breaking evolution of gas turbine engines used for propulsion and energy production. In a pulse-detonation engine, the energy from rapidly repeating detonations is incorporated into the process to produce additional power and efficiency. “We’re studying how combustion products change the character of the detonation process,” said Blunck. “That information will help us better design devices that use detonations.”

In 2016, Blunck was awarded the prestigious Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award for his research entitled “Ignition, Deflagration, and Detonation Behavior of Fuel and Oxidizer Mixed with Combustion Products.” He also was named the 2014-2015 AIAA Pacific Northwest Section Young Engineer of the Year. His groundbreaking research has attracted significant external funding from numerous sources, including the FAA, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the American Chemical Society, the Office of Naval Research, the National Energy and Technology Laboratory, and the Joint Fire Science Program.

Of all his many achievements, Blunck is most proud of his students. “At the end of the day, they’re the ones who will go out in the world and make a difference,” he said. “My own research will have an impact to some extent, but I think my influence on the world for the better will be greatest through my students and who they become.”

— Steve Frandzel

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