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Friday, May 11, 2012

OLYMPIC TORCH TECHNOLOGY (1)

OLYMPIC TORCH TECHNOLOGY

SYDNEY 2000


Title Image: Olympic Torch Technology

Heroic images of athletes holding aloft the Olympic flame dominate the world's most famous sporting event. But the need for the flame to be highly visible has often put the torch bearer at risk. Australian runner, Ron Clarke carried a spectacular, fizzling flame into the Melbourne Olympic Stadium in 1956 only to miss out on the ceremony having his magnesium burns dressed.
In the year 2000 it's going to be different. Strict safety guidelines demanded a torch that was highly visible yet safe to handle. Australian engineers and designers took up the challenge to deliver a torch that would not only stay alight in any weather and go anywhere - even underwater, but also produce minimal greenhouse gases.
Melanie Tilbrook looks at the steps taken to create the safest and most reliable Olympic flame ever.

Ron Clarke
Ron Clarke likely had no choice but to keep running even though his arms were copping burns from torch debris.
The runners in the '56 torch relay carried a block of naphthalene and hexamine but a more spectacular flame was felt necessary for the entry of the flame into the Melbourne Olympic Stadium. Ron Clarke found himself hanging on to a stick that was burning a mixture of magnesium and aluminium flakes and dropping clumps of material onto the track around him. It was the sort of fuel technology that left lots of room for improvement.
The first liquid/gas fuel appeared at the '72 Munich games. Each successive summer games - Moscow, Los Angeles, Atlanta - have seen similar 'cigarette lighter' torches where fuel is stored under pressure as a liquid and burnt as gas to produce flame.
The torch from Atlanta used propylene - a relatively expensive hydrocarbon. With high amounts of carbon, it yielded a bright flame but also lots of smoke. The Australian designers set out to find a similar sort of fuel but without the abundant soot - a known carcinogen.

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Torch fuel system
Jordan Parham, a postgraduate student at the Department of Mechanical Engineering spent many hours testing the torch. Image: University of Adelaide

For the 2000 torch, a range of candidate fuels and mixes were considered by a joint team fromthe Turbulence Energy and Combustion Groupat the University of Adelaide and local company,Fuel and Combustion Technology. The aim was to retain the luminosity of the flame but bring down excess carbon in the flame to reduce smoke. The fuel had to be readily available and able to be stored at less pressure than the propylene to allow use of a standard, lightweight canister.
Their ultimate choice is a mixture of 65% butane (cigarette lighter fuel) and 35% propane (LP gas). This blend could be stored under light pressure as a liquid and burnt as a gas at atmospheric pressure. The mix burns extremely cleanly producing only just enough soot to produce a bright yellow flame.
Once the fuel had been determined, it was up to the engineers to come up with a way to burn it from the top of a tube in such a way that it would be consistent, reliable and safe under any conditions.
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All other liquid/gas torches had drawn fuel from the canister as gas. The problem with this design is that energy required to convert the liquid to the gas has to be drawn from the fuel and the canister itself. The same principle applies to an ordinary BBQ gas bottle. While the BBQ heats up, the gas bottle gets colder. Frost appears on the outside as the moisture in the air freezes against cold metal. In a torch, the dropping temperature also drops the pressure inside the canister so as the fuel is expended the flame gets smaller.
The makers of the Atlanta torch attempted to compensate by using twice as much fuel as needed for the flame but even then the size of the flame was halved from the beginning to the end of each torch-bearing leg.

Torch diagram

The 2000 torch draws fuel from the canister as liquid. The liquid, under pressure is forced through a tiny 65 micron orifice in the fuel pipe.
Sudden expansion through the orifice results in a mixture of vapour and spray. To achieve complete vaporisation the fuel pipe twists up and through the base of the flame.
The design delivers a constant flow of gas to the burner.
The Atlanta torch, and similar torches before it, used a simple rosette style combustor or burner - similar to those you might see on a gas stove - with gas streaming out of a series of holes . The 2000 burner is a completely new design delivering far better reliability.
The new burner produces two flames simultaneously - a large, luminous external flame burning up to about 25cm and a small, well protected blue flame to constantly keep the torch alight.
The vapour entering the cup-shaped combustor is split into two streams. Some is mixed with oxygen, drawn through vents at the top of the combustor. This pre-mixed fuel burns with a hot blue flame inside the combustor acting as a pilot light. The remaining fuel comes out of the combustor as a slow jet through 9 outlets and, without being pre-mixed with oxygen, burns at a slower rate and cooler temperature delivering a large yellow flame.

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torch casing and windshield
The external shell opens, allowing the fuel canister to be removed at the end of each 10 minute relay leg. Left-over fuel can be recycled along with torches and canisters. Image: University of Adelaide
The double system is highly tolerant of wind. As an extra precaution an egg-shaped windshield made of extremely thin stainless steel clips to the coiled fuel line above the combustor, also acting to broaden the base of the flame for more effect.
The shape of the torch also helps keep the flame alight. The flame is anchored with the wake generated by the curved and protective top of the torch. The windshield and the wall of the cavity in the top of the torch are made of very thin metal so that any heat build-up is minimised, also minimising the temperature of the outside of the torch making it safer to handle.

The torch was developed in collaboration with eventual manufacturers, G. A. & L. Harrington Pty. Ltd.
At every stage of development the torch was trialled in a wind tunnel where the flame was tested against steady and gusting winds up to 65 kms/hour. A sprinkler system, added to a second wind tunnel, tested the flame against both wind and rain.
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Torch diagram
Image: University of Adelaide

According to Steven Hill, from Fuel and Combustion Technology, the researchers were mildly surprised to see the torch survive better in hard than soft rain. The mystery was revealed to be the steam factor. In hard rain, steam could not rise from metallic surfaces but in lighter rain the body of the torch began to steam and the steam could extinguish the flame. In the final design, the thin surrounding metal cools quickly to prevent prevent steam from posing a threat.


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The spiritual meaning given to the journey of the Olympic flame has made it customary for the flame to stay alight continuously from the time it leaves Olympia, until it is extinguished at the end of the closing ceremony.
Transporting the torch throughout the world has presented organisers with some interesting problems. International air safety regulations do not allow naked flame aboard aircraft, so the flame is stored in miner's (Davis) Lanterns in flight and when the torch procession breaks for the night. A custom designed cradle allows the lanterns to be strapped into any aircraft seat.
torch in wind tunnel
The torch survives a 40 km/hr wind
Image: University of Adelaide

The Queensland part of the journey presented a new logistical problem - keeping the eternal flame alight for an underwater trip along the Great Barrier Reef. This leg will use a combustion system based on a reduced intensity marine distress flare. It will last only three minutes instead of the usual 16 to 20 minutes.
If the torch goes out there is no need to call off the games or return to Olympia to re-light the flame. Flameouts have happened before. The Atlanta torch had a 'quick design review' while still in Greece and the Nagano torch experienced multiple flameouts over seven days.
After each flameout, the torches were re-ignited with flame from a miner's lantern, also lit by the original sacred flame. 10 back-up lanterns travel with the Sydney 2000 procession.

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The team from Adelaide has also been called up to design and build burners for the community cauldrons used during twice-daily formal ceremonial occasions. Eight burners are making their way around the country, re-used in cauldrons that end up as souvenir mementos for the host community.
Finally, there's the 'main burner', the final resting place for the Olympic flame at the Sydney Olympic Stadium. Richard Kelso, from Adelaide University is keen to talk about torches, fuel lines, burners and cauldrons but on the subject of the main burner Kelso is suddenly tight lipped. This much he can tell us: "it's very big".
The team were able to use an aerodynamic model of the entire stadium - on a scale of 1:500 - made by the Civil Engineering Department at Sydney University, to get some idea of environmental factors. They then developed and tested a scale model of the burner at 1:10 scale at Adelaide University.

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