Associate Professor Peter Mullinger: celebrating a career at the nexus of industry and academia

A/Prof Peter Mullinger

On Thursday December 16, 2021, colleagues from the University of Adelaide and former industry partners will gather at a private function to thank Associate Professor Peter Mullinger for his many contributions, and to celebrate his rich and varied career, which was at the core, dedicated to increasing fuel efficiency, and lowering carbon emissions.

It is not surprising to learn that Peter’s work has had a large impact on Professor Gus Nathan and colleagues from the Centre for Energy Technology, and helped to inspire the idea behind the CRC for Heavy Industry Low-Carbon Transition (HILT CRC). He also left a huge legacy in the hundreds of students he trained at the school of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials. However, to understand how Peter Mullinger came to be at the University of Adelaide, he says that you have to look back to how his career began.

“My career has exceeded my wildest expectations. As a 16-year-old I expected to be a draughtsman working on a drawing board for my life,” he says. “I never dreamt that I would travel the world solving the challenges of the high temperature process industries and finish my career at The University of Adelaide”.

He credits the achievements of his career with not being afraid to take risks, change paths and embrace opportunities, since one thing inevitably leads to another.

‘Peter had uncanny ability to get to the bottom of a complex problem’ adds Professor Nathan. ‘He also had an enormous capacity for hard work, great leadership skills, a brilliant mind and a penchant for independent thinking. Peter inspired confidence in being able to overcome difficult industrial challenges – and overcome he did.

Attending university was not on Peter’s radar when he began a technical apprenticeship. It was on his boss’s recommendation that he transferred to Leicester University to complete his engineering qualification. In 1967, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, which also covered topics in civil engineering and electrical and electronic engineering, but strangely did not include chemical engineering, which would become the focus of his later work and study.

Peter began his engineering career, as a mechanical engineer, designing oil burners for very large power stations.

In 1970, an opportunity arose for him to join the University of Sheffield as an Experimental Officer working on atomisation of oil burners for the Royal Navy. To upskill in the area, Peter undertook a PhD in chemical engineering at Sheffield, which he completed in 2.5 years. His thesis, “The Atomisation of Liquid Fuels” won the Lubbock-Sambrook Award for the best paper on any subject dealing with liquid fuels, from the Institute of Fuel (now known as the Institute of Energy), in London.

It was then that his career took an unexpected turn. He graduated at the time of the OPEC embargo and oil crisis of 1973, the price of oil sky rocketed and oil became a rare commodity. Using it as an energy source was now out of the question. Peter was left wondering what to do next.

Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he took the opportunity to live out a boyhood dream of working on the railways and driving steam locomotives. He got a job working on the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway in South East Kent, possibly the busiest steam train line in Britain at the time. He spent the next five years refurbishing the railway and driving the locomotives, which were one third the size of regular trains, but the same in every other way. The RH&D railway is still a major tourist attraction in Kent today.

“Because of my background in engineering I gravitated into a leadership role, while working at the railway. I only got to drive the trains once or twice a week because they were using my engineering skills,” he says.

However, after five years working on the railways ‘playing trains’ as he put it, Peter decided it was time to get ‘a real job’. He landed a role as a Project Engineer with Rugby Cement, where he met Dr Barrie Jenkins, who was to become a lifelong collaborative partner over a range of career endeavours, as well as a good friend.

“I met Barrie in 1977, when he was doing research into the cement industry at the University of Surrey. We have been working together ever since.”

In the first three months at Rugby, Peter was trained in how to make cement and he spent time talking to the plant operators to find out what the issues were. As part of a project he designed a lighter burner for one of the cement kilns. With his background in heat transfer and combustion, he was tasked with reducing the cost and emissions of all of Rugby Cement’s coal-fired rotary kilns.

In Feb 1981, while at Rugby, Peter visited Australia for the first time to look at a lime kiln at Cockburn Cement (now owned by Adbri). He sorted the problem out, however it would be fair to say that his first experience of Australia was not such a happy one, and he vowed never to return. How things change!

After 5 years at Rugby, he had fixed the problems that needed to be addressed with the kilns and was ready to move on to his next adventure. He became Technical Director of Airoil Flaregas Ltd., a burner company for the petrochemical industry. Barrie Jenkins joined him as Technical Director, and the two turned the business, which was on the verge of bankruptcy into a highly profitable concern.

In 1998, Peter and Barrie left the company to form their own company, Fuel & Combustion Tech (FCT) International Ltd. They began FCT in High Wycombe, UK, but soon held offices in locations around the world, such as, Australia and the US. Quite quickly almost half of the work of the company was based in Australia, for example, supplying the first burners for Olympic Dam in South Australia. Today FCT’s head office is based in Adelaide.

The company is known for designing the flames for the Olympic torch and stadium flame at the Sydney Olympics. In fact, FCT has provided every stadium flame for the Olympics, apart from Beijing, since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The technology commercialised by FCT was developed at the University of Adelaide by Professor Gus Nathan and Professor Sam Luxton, with whom he also established a life-long partnership.

“Gus had huge input into the Olympic flames at Sydney, jointly developing a new technology that was to eventually lead to the establishment of a new line of business for FCT” Peter says. FCT Flames has supplied burners to every Olympic Games since Sydney.

He recalls that his first encounter with Gus’s work was in 1986, when Con Manias, now Managing Director of FCT, took him to the engineering labs at the University of Adelaide to look at Gus’s precessing jets. Then in 1988, Gus and Sam Luxton visited Peter in High Wycombe to discuss commercialising the technology. This was eventually to be called the Gyro-Therm Burner, which has been widely installed in cement, lime and iron pellet kilns around the world. Professor Sam Luxton, was Head of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Adelaide at the time and Dr Gus Nathan (as he was then) had just graduated and was presenting his PhD work at a conference in Europe.

In 2005, the University of Adelaide and FCT designed the flames for Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Festival Theatre for the State Opera.

“I was the safety person” Peter explains. “I had to work out how we could have 15 megawatts of heat released in the Festival Theatre without cooking everybody.”

It was an audacious production, with close attention to safety being required. The flame was close to the performers and the audience, contained within an enclosed space, and the heat could be felt by all. A ring and line of fire operated safely throughout the production and provided a ‘stunning backdrop for the unfolding opera on stage’.

Gyro-Therm burners were also used in the Ring Cycle series are still a commercial FCT product today in high temperature processing plants around the world.

In 1999, another twist of fate led Peter to apply for work with the CRC for Clean Power from Lignite, at the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering.

At the age of 55 Peter felt that, to keep making a contribution, he needed to take his industry based knowledge to a role in academia. He was also ready to move to Australia from the UK, and the role with the University of Adelaide, was a good fit for him in a number of ways.

“I had employed a lot of new chemical engineering graduates at FCT and I really enjoyed training and mentoring them,” he explains.

Peter had lecturing experience, through running courses for industry, and with guest lecturing. He also had experience with supervising a PhD student, having sponsored one of his engineers, Christine Bertrand to do a PhD, in modelling using CFD modelling of an Alcoa calciner.

“I think it was the first commercial-use of CFD modelling in the world. It was ground breaking,” he says.

While he ticked all the boxes for the role with the university, obtaining a permanent visa to move to Australia was not so easily done. He was fortunate to receive advice that he should apply for a visa on the basis of being a ‘distinguished talent with local support’. Being a founder and director of an international company, Peter had an international reputation. It was Professor Sam Luxton, who supported his visa application. Sam’s work in aerodynamics was internationally renowned, and Peter’s visa application was processed without delay.

At the CRC for Clean Power from Lignite, Peter’s work focussed on coal, particularly gasification, but also on improving combustion, and reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

By the time the Centre for Energy Technology (CET) was formed in 2009, Peter’s research with the CRC had come to an end. At an age when most people would retire, he decided to focus on teaching. He is humble when asked about his role in the establishment of the CET, although its founder and director, Professor Gus Nathan, is more effusive: “Peter’s pioneering work in developing and applying best-practice engineering to reduce air pollution from heavy industrial processes has been one of the pillars on which the HILT CRC is founded”, he said.

“Peter has brought unparalleled knowledge of these industrial processes to our University, as is demonstrated in the book he authored with Barrie Jenkins ‘Industrial and Process Furnaces: Principles, Design and Operation’, now in its third edition. I have personally learned so much from him in working to solve real industrial challenges, such as the award-winning solution to an industrial driven combustion oscillation in a refinery flare at Shell in Clyde, NSW”.

Peter says that he sees himself as developer, more than a researcher.

“My forte is taking university research and applying it in the real world. Seeing the value of applying it. I’ve done this with acid alkali modelling, CFD modelling, zone modelling and to a large extent the Gyro-Therm burner. That’s what I’m best at.”

When asked about the future of emissions reduction Peter says: “There’s a lot we can do with what we have got, but its policy we need. The technology is there, we need policy to apply it.”

And as for his future, he says he is focusing on voluntary work now, doing restoration projects and practical jobs for friends, running the science and engineering challenge for the Rotary Club and mentoring engineering students. “I’m very satisfied with the life I’ve led. I don’t look back and wish I’d done anything differently.”

“Peter leaves an enduring legacy in the researchers of the Centre for Energy Technology and in the hundreds of Chemical Engineering students he has trained in industrial process engineering” says Professor Peter Ashman, Director (People & Infrastructure) of the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences. “We will be forever grateful for his contributions to the University and to the wider profession”.

Tagged in CET, chemical engineering, industry based learning, fuel efficiency