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Engineer Who Wrote the Book on Combustion Keeps Passion for Education Burning

February 22, 2021

min read

Growing up outside Philadelphia, Chuck Baukal loved tinkering with his 1970 Plymouth Road Runner. He was good at math and science, too, and followed those interests and abilities into studying mechanical engineering in college. On a cooperative assignment, he discovered combustion and found a lifelong passion, which started him on a journey to finding his purpose. He later earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a thesis concerning heat transfer from impinging flames. That journey eventually led him to the founding of the John Zink Institute, a place devoted to Chuck’s passion — and the idea that combustion can be used to make the world a cleaner, safer place.

“When people ask me what I do, I say I'm a paid pyromaniac,” he jokes.

In 1998, Chuck joined John Zink Hamworthy Combustion, which produces best-in-class emissions-control and clean-air combustion systems – technology that captures emissions, destroys pollutants and heats vital processes that help industries operate more safely, cleanly and efficiently every day. These systems ensure emissions from the manufacturing process are minimized. 

“It’s important to me that I work for a company whose core competency is reducing pollution,” he says. “The air I'm breathing today is a lot cleaner than when I was a kid. That’s who we are.”

Koch Industries - pollution prevention engineer

One of Chuck’s first projects was to write a textbook on combustion. Full of color photography – a first for this type of book – it became the publisher’s bestselling book on mechanical engineering. It’s still in use in college engineering courses and professional training programs.  A third edition is in the works.

John Zink Institute textbook

JZHC has been training customers on how to use emissions-control and clean-air combustion systems safely and effectively since the 1950s, but in an ad hoc way. It occurred to Chuck and the JZHC team that a textbook was just the start – building a learning center that would offer world-class training, instruction and experiences in combustion could help the industry. Chuck knew he’d found a way to both pass on his own love of combustion and continue helping the industry improve the environment.

To develop a top-of-the-line training regimen for burner operators at companies like Flint Hills Resources that we all trust to make millions of everyday products, Chuck combined the best bits from each JZHC product group and subject matter expert. JZHC has the most patents in the industry – for everything from gas combustion to high-capacity burners – making the company uniquely suited to teach and share knowledge with others.

John Zink Institute textbook signing

In early 2000, Chuck helped open the John Zink Institute within the company’s facility in Tulsa.

But when leadership asked him to lead the institute, he didn’t think he was ready. “I'm an engineer, not a teacher,” Chuck said. “I told my boss I needed more education to do it.”

So Chuck went back to school — supported by Koch’s tuition assistance — earning a master's degree in education, with a specialty in adult education, and a second doctorate in education. For his thesis, he researched how engineers learn. “I wanted to see if we were training engineers correctly,” he said. “To know if engineers should be trained differently than everybody else. The answer is yes.”

He found engineers are highly visual learners, meaning the training should have lots of pictures, videos and animations. “Another thing that's different about us: We like problem-solving.”

John Zink Institute textbook

He took that research back to the Institute, creating the only combustion and process training in the industry accredited by the International Association of Continuing Education and Training. The goal is to prepare students for any scenario.

An important component of the face-to-face training in Tulsa is the John Zink Test Center, which is the largest, most advanced combustion testing facility of its kind in the world.

John Zink Institute test center

Students get to see live demonstrations in the Test Center, which has become one of JZHC’s most important customer tools. This wasn’t an accident. “David Koch wanted it to be the crown jewel of John Zink Hamworthy Combustion and the industry,” Chuck said. “He said, ‘I want it to be the best in the world.’”

Due to COVID-19, much of the training has moved online, but that hasn’t slowed the training – or any of his students.

Chuck isn’t passing on his knowledge just to those currently in the workforce. He’s also an adjunct professor, teaching and inspiring young engineers considering careers in the industry and at Koch. “It could be a struggle to entice new engineering graduates to work for a company that burns stuff,” Chuck says. “But when students hear about our leadership in reducing pollution emissions, see our world-class facilities and meet our outstanding employees, they get excited about working for an industry leader. I am passionate about telling them all the great things we are doing and how Koch supports the development of its employees.”