Associate professor, Australian National University

I am an applied mathematician and physical chemist.

Currently I am working on the origin of life in the primordial soup! Another current interest is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scientific and engineering heritage.

As an experienced thermodynamicist I am concerned about the widespread misunderstanding of thermodynamics, particularly of the second law and the concept of entropy, among people who are otherwise scientifically literate. If you do not have good working knowledge of the fundamentals of thermodynamics – specifically the Maxwell relations and their Legendre transforms – then it is better not to mention entropy or the second law in your articles, because you will most likely get it hopelessly, even ridiculously, wrong.

Currently in my research I am working collaboratively on new high efficiency systems for separating carbon from fuels and flue gases.

A spinoff is that I have elucidated the oscillatory thermal instability that led to the Bhopal disaster and initiates explosion of peroxide bombs used by terrorists.

My research expertise in reactive thermal runaway and thermal explosions is also motivated by process safety. Serious and fatal thermal runaway incidents are quite common in chemical plants in Asia and in developing nations, although they are rarely reported in the Western press. (E.g, see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-08-19/hyderabad/29904559_1_kalpana-explosion-ketone.)

Most such incidents are preventable, but crucial knowledge that was made good use of by chemical engineers from the 1950s through the 1970s evidently never was learned in some relevant quarters. Ignorance is dangerous.

Recently I came across two papers in the refereed literature claiming to determine thermal runaway criteria for processes used to manufacture two types of explosives, which I read with horror and disbelief.

The authors prescribed operating criteria that they claimed are "safe" from thermal runaway, without carrying out ANY stability analysis. But there is a vicious oscillatory thermal instability in these systems, as an elementary stability analysis shows. Plant operators using their guidelines would be in for a nasty surprise - that is, if they survived. Due to their ignorance these authors' thermal 'safety' criteria are incorrect and dangerous.

This does not reflect well on the journals that published these two papers. Why were the serious shortcomings not picked up by referees?

In general science as fatally (literally) flawed as that in these two papers should not be left unchallenged but where real safety is involved and it puts human lives at risk one is morally obliged to correct it in the refereed literature. Our paper on this may be downloaded at http://arxiv.org/abs/1202.5550, it is published as: Ball, R., Gray, B.F., Thermal instability and runaway criteria: The dangers of disregarding dynamics. Process Safety and Environmental Protection (2012),
http://dx.doi.org/10.10/j.psep.2012.05.008.

On another front, I am researching the role of fire in sequestering CO2.

Experience

  • –present
    ARC Future Fellow , The Australian National University
  • –present
    Scientific Consultant, Independent

Education

  • 1997 
    Macquarie University, PhD
  • 1993 
    Macquarie University, BSc Hons I + University Medal

Publications

  • 2014
    Hydrogen peroxide thermochemical oscillator as driver for primordial RNA replication, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, DOI 10.1098/rsif.2013.1052, http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.3875
  • 2012
    Thermal oscillations in the decomposition of organic peroxides: identification of a hazard, Submitted March 27, 2012 to Chemical Engineering Science.
  • 2012
    Second law analyses of Endex and conventional calcium looping processes for CO2 capture. , Submitted April 05, 2012 to Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series A
  • 2012
    Thermal decomposition and combustion chemistry of cellulosic biomass., Atmospheric Environment 47, 133–141.
  • 2012
    Thermal instability and runaway criteria: the dangers of disregarding dynamics. , http://arxiv.org/abs/120. Submitted Feb 23, 2012 to Process Safety and Environmental Protection.
  • 2012
    The Charcoal Challenge. Regulation of global carbon cycles by vegetation fires. , Submitted Dec 21, 2011 to Proceedings of the Combustion Institute.
  • 2012
    Thermal instability and runaway criteria: The dangers of disregarding dynamics, Process Safety and Environmental Protection (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psep.2012.05.008
  • 2011
    Oscillatory thermal instability and the Bhopal disaster. , Process Safety and Environmental Protection 89, 317–322.
  • 2010
    Separation of carbon dioxide from flue emissions using Endex principles., Fuel 89, 2750–2759.

Research Areas

  • Applied Mathematics (0102)
  • Physical Chemistry Not Elsewhere Classified (030699)
  • Carbon Capture Engineering (Excl. Sequestration) (090401)
  • Carbon Sequestration Science (050301)
  • Climate Change Processes (040104)
  • Non Automotive Combustion And Fuel Engineering (Incl. Alternative/Renewable Fuels) (090405)
  • Dynamical Systems In Applications (010204)
  • Chemical Thermodynamics And Energetics (030602)
  • Chemical Engineering (0904)
  • Reaction Kinetics And Dynamics (030703)
  • Chemical Engineering Design (090403)
  • Chemical Sciences Not Elsewhere Classified (039999)

Honours

ARC Future Fellowship 2010–2014, Lagrange Fellowship, Italy 2005, ARC Postdoc 2000–2003, AAS Fellowship to Europe 2001, University Medal 1993, RACI Student Prize 1992, ARC Postgraduate Award, Energy Priority Area 1993–1996