Edmonton’s Absolute Combustion International Finds Success in Aerospace Industry

The company designed a nearly flameless combustion technology that burns cleaner, significantly cuts emissions and runs on natural gas and propane. Originally created for the oil and gas industry, it has emerged as a game changer in aerospace, offering a viable replacement for portable aircraft heaters that haven’t been redesigned in 60 years.

Good things come to those who wait. The adage rings true when it comes to Absolute Combustion International (ACI). It’s a testament to perseverance against the odds. Its founders, the late Darsell Karringten and his daughter, Koleya, never strayed from their vision.

“The concern was, will the next generation have clean air to breathe?” says Koleya, current CEO of Absolute Combustion. “What will our world look like, and how do we help shift it or leave it better than we found it?”

Founded over a decade ago, the Edmonton-based company designed a nearly flameless combustion technology that burns cleaner, significantly cuts emissions and runs on natural gas and propane — the Absolute Extreme Burner.

Originally created for the oil and gas industry, it has emerged as a game changer in aerospace, offering a viable replacement for portable aircraft heaters that haven’t been redesigned in 60 years.

Following three years of testing and development in collaboration with the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) and, after third-party testing by Versatile Engineering, the final product, ACI-SM1000 has proven to be faster and more efficient in heat transfer than any of its predecessors — it outperforms standard technologies, with 50 to 70 per cent reduction in fuel usage, and the capacity to withstand extreme cold. But the path to commercializing it has been anything but easy.

As father and daughter first set out to look at eco-friendly technologies that hadn’t been commercialized, they kept running into the same roadblock — the technology was always innovating, and never ready.

After three years of fruitless efforts, it was clear to Darsell that the only remaining option was to develop it themselves.

“We didn’t exactly know anything about combustion,” says Koleya. “So we found Brent Garossino, who did instrumentation, and we came up with this basic concept for a nozzle, and they built it around that.”

But it wasn’t until four years ago that the company established its first long-term partnership, with EIA. In 2016, Koleya was invited by the Alberta Government to a tech conference in Japan. As a group of experts looked at her company’s technology prior to the conference, the promising and innovative concept left no room for doubt. At the time, the conventional aircraft heater couldn’t heat up at temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius. It needed help from the plane’s auxiliary power unit that “guzzled gas like nobody’s business,” as Koleya puts it (174 litres of fuel per hour on a Boeing 737-200, for example). Not surprisingly, Absolute Combustion was tasked with redesigning it.

The new ACI-SM1000 heater was a drastic improvement — it could bring the cabin of a Boeing 737-200 from -30 C to +20 C in half an hour, using only seven litres of fuel per hour. And if needed it could operate even at -50 C temperatures.

“The partnership between ACI and EIA reflects our airport’s commitment to supporting Alberta’s technology sector,” says Steve Maybee, vice president of operations and infrastructure at EIA. “In addition, we will get the benefits of having this faster and more efficient portable aircraft heater at our airport.”

The technology operates at 100 per cent combustion efficiency. This means that 100 per cent of all combustible and hazardous particles, both solid and liquid, that are suspended in air, are incinerated upon exit — including dust, soot, smoke and liquid droplets. As a result, the air that comes out is in fact cleaner than the air that goes in.

The downturn of economy may have prompted the company to turn to aerospace, but Koleya hasn’t given up on the gas and oil industry either.

“We thought the best way to go back into that industry was if we gained traction in another market,” she says.

Previously, the application of this technology in the oil and gas industry was temporarily tested and commercialized when Absolute Combustion partnered up with Imaginea Energy Corp., a Calgary-based startup that has since ceased to exist — but commercializing it on a larger scale remained challenging.

“There’s a lot of funding out there if you want to do research and development,” says Koleya. “But there’s very little funding if you try to maintain your company’s operation, so you can make it to commercialization.”

Kolyea credits one of the company’s major breakthroughs to the partnership with her late mentor Suzanne West, a founder and CEO of Imaginea. West was equally ahead of her time, advocating for clean technologies when her shareholders refused to listen — and even investing her own money in Absolute Combustion before it gained traction.

“She was huge into the environment and advocating for women to be their authentic selves and leaders,” Koleya recalls. “It had a huge impact on me.”

While Darsell passed away in 2015 due to cancer, before the company found success, Koleya has carried on his legacy, having shared his passion for business and environmental concerns. After all, her father started mentoring her when she was only four years old — and made a plan for her to go into business with him once she would turn 21.

This article appears in the June 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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