Derek Bradley 90th birthday meeting and celebration

By Alex Taylor

Under the sweeping title of “The Nature of Flames”, the regular autumn meeting of the Combustion Institute, held on the 19 September 2016, was dedicated to the 90th birthday of Derek Bradley and took place, appropriately, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the University of Leeds, where Derek has spent most of his productive life.

Derek showing Malcom doing duty as a non-premixed burner, equipped with unusual PPE

A packed lecture theatre was treated to a series of eight well known speakers who delivered, over 35 minutes each, a stimulating and varied series of topics during the day.  Richard Stone (University of Oxford) chaired part of the morning’s proceedings and Malcolm Lawes, well known to all as one of Derek’s stalwart scientific collaborators and fellow Yorkshireman, began the day on a high note with a fine presentation and brief survey of Leeds’ work on “Burning Velocities”.  Another close colleague of Derek, Gautam Kalghatgi (formerly of Shell Global Solutions and currently with Saudi Aramco) delivered, in his usual engaging and persuasive style, a wide-ranging talk on “Internal Combustion Engines” which built on much of the joint work with Derek over the years. 

Roger Cracknell and Geoff Chamberlain (who are at Shell Global Solutions) shared the podium to provide an overview of ‘Combustion Activities in Shell” – preignition, mega knock and the effects of deposits as well as fires and explosions (Inc. the infamous Buncefield)- and thereby demonstrated that, despite the much-lamented demise of the Thornton Lab, research and innovation are very much alive at the red and yellow pectin and reminded the audience of Derek’s close involvement with the company over many years. Alan Mitcheson, of Dr JH Burgoyne & Partners LLP, gave a very entertaining talk before lunch on the subject of “Public Enquiries” which described his experiences of some of the more spectacular, and serious, combustion “events” which have had an impressive ‘impact factor’, although perhaps not quite in the way that any university vice-chancellor would appreciate…

Roger Cracknell showing that research continues at Shell Global Solutions, even after Thornton labs’ closure….

Lunch was an excellent opportunity for the large audience to meet and exchange views and news, with the all-important cohort of “young scientists” out in force to honour the occasion with their vivacity and enthusiasm.  The AGM (chaired by Yannis Hardalupas) had no trouble with establishing a quorum and was leavened by the award of prizes to Konstantina Vogiatzaki (now at the University of Brighton) and Pavlos Aleiferis (now back at Imperial College London).  I am assured that you don’t have to be Greek to win prizes (but it helps…).

John Griffiths (University of Leeds) chaired the session immediately after lunch and Alison Tomlin opened the batting with a fascinating talk on “The future of Kinetic modelling of new fuels”, followed by a welcome visitor to these shores, the ever ebullient Elaine Oran (University of Maryland) who took us “From fire whirls to blue whirls and combustion with reduced pollution”.  After tea, Doug Greenhalgh (recently of Glasgow Caledonian University but now mostly Technical University of Berlin) chaired the remainder of the afternoon’s scientific presentations, first introducing Bill Jones (Imperial College London) who left us in no doubt that “The future of turbulent modelling” is as promising a topic as it ever was, although he seems to have moved on a little from just two equations and the typesetting required goes some considerable way beyond just finding the keystroke for ‘epsilon’ nowadays. Allan Hayhurst (University of Cambridge) was as eloquent and engaging as ever on the “Electrical Properties of Flames”, an aspect of combustion which here received its deserved place in the pantheon of phenomena covered by the day.

The star turn, and the centre of attention, was Derek himself who spoke wittily – as always (I vividly recall his words as I stood up to drone on at some meeting: “make some jokes – liven it up!”) – on the subject of “The golden years of combustion” which was delivered in his inimitable and vigorous style.  For me, the highpoint was a slide showing Malcolm Lawes literally ‘breathing fire’ (see the photograph which, as all the photographs here, was kindly supplied by Alison Tomlin): we all know that money is tight for combustion, but I would have thought that Leeds could have afforded more sober PPE than was on display….

Derek at the start of his talk


The day was perhaps modelled on Reith’s BBC (“educate, inform and entertain”) so that Elaine Oran chaired the ‘inform cum entertain’ part by introducing John Lydon who spoke about the “The golden years of Joseph Priestley”.  This riveting talk was appropriate partly because Priestley was a fellow-Yorkshireman born close to Leeds (the frequent reference to Yorkshire has nothing to do with your writer’s father being a Yorkshireman, also born nearby….), because of Priestley’s well known association with combustion, because Priestley was also an FRS and because of Priestley’s surprisingly wide international connections (Lisbon and Pennsylvania, anyone?).  The main connection with Derek was that Priestley was well known as a ‘Rational dissenter’ which mirrors Derek’s own refreshing brand of questioning, and his approach based on ‘first principles’ which eschews conventional wisdom.  This approach has served both of them well and drives Derek’s evident enthusiasm for combustion, for intellectual discourse on all manner of subjects and for life in general.  It was invigorating to be present at the meeting, not only because of Derek but also because of the universal and deep affection with which the audience holds him.

Derek presenting work on auto ignition


At the close of the afternoon session, we all moved to a Reception held at the splendid surroundings of “University House” followed by Dinner, where the wine and conversation flowed freely into the late hours of the evening.


Malcolm Lawes tells me with typical modesty that, although he ‘officially’ organised the agenda, “…Judith Schneider (admin support staff at Leeds) did all the real work…”.  We are grateful to them both for making the day such as splendid occasion, which will live long in our collective memories.