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Emeritus Professor Alan Williams

Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the death, on 6 September 2023, of Emeritus Professor Alan Williams, former Livesey Professor of Fuel and Combustion Science.

Alan was born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, to Ralph and Muriel (Lewis) Williams, and was always proud of his humble beginnings. Maybe the presence of the large coal heap behind his house shaped his early aspirations, as he is best known for his prolific research in areas related to combustion, including coal combustion and pollutant formation.

He moved to Leeds in 1955 to study chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds, where he remained to pursue PhD research (1957-1959) under the supervision of the eminent Professor Peter Gray FRS. He studied the spontaneous combustion of methyl nitrite and the role of alkoxyl radicals in nitrite pyrolysis, recalling that his experiments at the time would not pass modern health and safety risk assessments.

During this time, he met his wife-to-be, Maureen (née Bagnall), and they were married on 30 July 1960. Over their subsequent 63 years of marriage, they celebrated the birth of three sons, Christopher, Nicholas, and Simon, and four grandchildren, Hannah, Andrew, Tom, and Ben.

His interest in combustion continued during his work as a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds funded by the British Gas Fellowship Scheme between 1959 and 1964. This research with Professor Graham Dixon-Lewis FRS led to seminal work concerning hydrogen flame kinetics and the development of the first computer models of flame structure.

Alan was appointed to the academic staff as a lecturer in 1964, Senior Lecturer (1972-1973) and his talents for strategic vision in research and teaching were recognised through his rapid promotion to the position of Livesey Professor of Fuel and Combustion Science, and Head of the Department of Fuel and Combustion Science in 1973. He was, at age 38, the youngest Professor in the University.

His research in fundamental combustion kinetics continued with work on shock tubes for studying the combustion of hydrogen and methane and Alan started work on nitric oxide formation in flames. The study of flame-generated pollutants was a lifelong theme in his research. During this time, he also developed understanding of the combustion of droplets and sprays of heavy fuel oils, including high-asphaltene fuels.

Alan’s early research in combustion fundamentals later led to coal research where, along with colleagues, models for pulverised coal combustion were developed for the prediction of furnace performance and pollutant formation (nitrogen oxides and soot) – supporting the development of large-scale coal power generation in the UK. As well as pulverised coal combustion, he worked on co-firing biomass up to 100% biomass, and the modelling of gas fired furnaces, including oxy-natural gas and flameless combustion.

Later in his career, he also worked on very small-scale biomass combustion, assessing the design of traditional cooking stoves used by 2.8 billion people worldwide, to help improve their cooking efficiency and reduce emissions through design change.

Alan continued as Head of the Department of Fuel and Energy, and then the Energy and Resources Research Institute, until his retirement in 2000, when he became a Research Professor and continued in active research. He drove the expansion of the Department of Fuel and Energy in the mid-1990s from its routes in fundamental combustion science towards environmental and societal impacts. This included the development of undergraduate and Masters courses in Energy and Environment, and Fire Science and Safety Engineering. He held an influential role at the University of Leeds throughout his career and was Head of the Houldsworth School of Applied Sciences for many years, Director of Centre for Combustion and Energy Studies (1988-1992, 1998-2000), and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering (1991-1993).

His research output was astonishing, publishing more than 700 papers and conference publications, in journals such as Proceedings of the Combustion Institute, Combustion and Flame, Fuel, Progress in Energy and Combustion Science, as well as in Nature. He also published four books: Combustion of Sprays of Liquid Fuels (1976); Combustion of Liquid Fuel Sprays (1990); Combustion and Gasification of Coal (2000); and Pollutants Generated by the Combustion of Solid Biomass Fuels (2014). Even in retirement, he was listed in the top 40 of the top tier of UK cited researchers in Engineering Technology.

In 1995, he was awarded Commander of British Empire for services to the Scientific Development of Fuel Chemistry, and he became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1999 for his work in Combustion, Energy Conservation, Environment, and Biofuels.

He is a former President (1982-1983) and Honorary Secretary (1985-1991) of the Energy Institute, founding Chairman of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Energy Sector (1998-2013), a founding member of the original Coal Research Forum (now Fuel and Energy Research Forum) and served on the Executive Committee of this for many years. He was also a Member of the Council of the British Flame Research Committee (1986-1991), and all the Sub-Committees of the International Flame Research Foundation.

Alan was a distinguished and popular presence in both the national and international combustion research communities and always supported, encouraged, and developed the students and researchers within his sphere of influence. He has been a member of numerous Government and Institution Committees, and the driving founding force for many.

These included:

  • Chairman of the Watt Committee on Energy, Working Group on Methane Emissions (1990-1995);
  • Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and the Market for Coal (1992-1993);
  • Technical Advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy (1992-1993);
  • Member of the Watt Committee Group on Technological Response to the Greenhouse Effect (1988-1990);
  • Specialist advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Acid Rain and Energy (1984-1987);
  • Member of the Advisory Committee on Coal Research, Department of Trade and Industry, London (1990-1994);
  • Member of the Office of Science and Technology Committee – Technology Foresight, Energy Panel (1994-2000);
  • Member of the Energy Working Group, Royal Academy of Engineering (2004-2008);
  • Member of the Chief Scientists Group on Energy Research (2002-2006); and
  • Participation in roundtables from the joint National Engineering Policy Centre and Chief Medical Officer concerning ‘Engineering a Reduction in Air Pollution’ (2021-2023).

He had many other awards and delivered numerous, plenary and keynote lectures. Some examples include the Sugden Award by the Combustion Institute (British Section) in 1993 for the best contribution to Combustion Research and the Robens BCURA Coal Science gold medal (1997), a lecture he delivered in the Royal Institution.

In 2017, Alan received the George Westinghouse Gold Medal by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. This prestigious award recognised his novel research contributions to the fundamental understanding of the formation and reduction of pollutants in fossil fuel flames. He was appointed as a Fellow of the Combustion Institute in 2018 for exceptional research towards the understanding of combustion of gases, liquid fuels, coal, and biomass.

Alan was involved in active research to the point of his death, never losing his extraordinary energy and true love and passion for knowledge and research, and he leaves several started works that will be published posthumously. Alan touched many lives and leaves a rich legacy, not least through the innumerable PhD students he has supervised from all over the world, but also in the wonderful collegiate atmosphere he has imbued in the research community.

Alan was a remarkable and brilliant man with a huge heart and a zest for life; he was generous with his time and always a joy to talk to. He will be remembered for his exceptional intellect, his wicked sense of humour, his calm energy and enthusiasm and as someone who energised those around him: a thoroughly inspiring character who crossed the generations. He died doing what he loved, contributing to science and the combustion community at the 2nd FERIA Conference – the European Conference on Fuel and Energy Research and its Applications, in Sheffield, on 6 September 2023.

He will be deeply missed.

Alan’s funeral service, on 2 October, will be private for family and close friends, but a larger academic memorial event is planned later in the year where colleagues and family can celebrate Alan’s life and achievements. Donations are requested to The British Heart Foundation, in place of flowers.