The engineer who wouldn’t take No

Published Financial Review, Weekend Edition, Perspective 7 May 2021.

Owen Potter worked until his early 90s on his last invention, which could significantly improve industrial processes. Now it is up to his children to carry on his life’s work.

“It all started when…

It was about 12 years ago that the A4 pads covered in my dad’s strong cursive script and flowing mathematical equations began to take over the dining room table at my parents’ house in Camberwell.

Pictured: Owen working at his dining room table

This was the dining room in Melbourne’s east where we’d eaten family meals promptly at 7pm, watched Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space, and heard Dad give 21st birthday and wedding speeches for many of his eight children.

“What are you doing?” we would ask.

He was in his early 80s when this all started, and working with great energy. There was an ancient computer and printer spitting out calculations using the outdated C Basic language in the study, where his great desk groaned under decades of correspondence.

“Oh, just some work,” he would reply.

Dad – Owen Potter – was working on what he believed could become his last great contribution to chemical engineering, the discipline he practised for over 40 years.

His credentials were impeccable: foundation professor of chemical engineering at Monash, inventor of steam fluidised bed drying of brown coal, winner of many professional awards and doctorates, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences.

The result of Dad’s late life labours was the cross-flow contactor, which he argued could combine solid or liquid particles with gases much more efficiently than the fluidised beds he’d worked with in the ’80s.

Even so, it was nearly 20 years since he’d formally retired, and about a decade since he’d been a frequent visitor to the department at Monash as an emeritus professor.

In the interim, he’d beaten a serious cancer, cared for my mother, Julie – who became ill with cancer herself and died in 2010 – and seen the first of his great-grandchildren come into the world.

I confess to having had some doubts. Did he still have it? Or was he kidding himself? I had no way of knowing.

Dad himself had not a doubt in the world.

He was bent on taking fluidisation – a phenomenon that causes solid particles to interact more fluidly with gases and liquids – to the next level. Fluidisation is widely used: to roast coffee beans, backwash pool filters, refine petroleum and process minerals.

He wanted to prove a point. In the 1980s he argued that using a steam fluidised bed to dry Victorian brown coal could improve the efficiency of brown coal power stations by a fifth – close to that of black coal plants.

Owen Potter died seven weeks short of his 95th birthday, leaving his children to carry on his life’s work.  

One holiday, he employed me – wreathed in plumes of brown coal dust with just a handkerchief protecting my airways – to drop buckets of the stuff from a three-metre-high ladder into a powerful mill at the chemical engineering labs at Monash to provide experimental materials.

German engineering company Lurgi built a pilot plant in the Latrobe Valley. But the State Electricity Commission of Victoria declined to take it up. Brown coal was cheap to dig up and reducing carbon emissions was not an imperative in the 1980s.

Taking out patents

The decision rankled Dad. Three decades later, he believed energy efficiency’s time had come. The result of his late life labours was the cross-flow contactor, which he argued could combine solid or liquid particles with gases much more efficiently than the fluidised beds he’d worked with in the ’80s.

The idea was to introduce solid or liquid particles into a gas stream in curtains or waves to maximise the surface contact and speed heat exchange and catalytic reactions. Almost every industry uses these processes, and potential applications ranged from cooling towers on power stations and other industrial plants, to recovering energy from exhaust gases, mineral and food processing and carbon capture.

He wrote an academic paper to explain this, but not before taking out patents in the major economies. In 2012, I would often call him on my walk home from the station in Washington, where I was The Australian Financial Review’s US correspondent.

After exchanging news, he would grouse about how long it was taking academic journals to consider it. Eventually a UK journal – Chemical Engineering Research and Design – agreed to publish it under the title, Crossflow gas-particle heat and mass transfer and chemical reaction.

That was a breakthrough. Dad incorporated OEP X Flow Pty Ltd to commercialise the idea. Two of my sisters, Mary and Caecilia, joined him as directors, and my brother-in-law, James van Smeerdijk, then a PwC partner, became an adviser. I came on board on my return from Washington in 2013.

The eight years since have been an object lesson in how difficult it is to translate technology ideas into revenue-earning businesses. This is the process known as commercialisation, at which Dad and many others believed Australia could do a lot better.

How the world came around to carbon capture storage

At the same time, he had some academic habits that held it up. If he came up with a new application, one of his first instincts was to publish a paper. But our advice was to build a simple pilot plant to show that the idea worked in practice.

Our first task was to translate Dad’s idea into a workable design. Caecilia’s team at Atticus & Milo – a design studio – commenced the engineering drawings under Dad’s watchful eye. He worked feverishly with two consulting engineers – Mark Latham and Eric Curtis – and an engineering firm in Reservoir, Pinches Industries. We spent many hours sitting around the large dining room table at Caecilia and James’ home in Hawthorn talking about progress and pitfalls.

It was slow going. A few years ago, Dad was in his early 90s and slowing down physically, and his cursive script had become a bit spidery. Caecilia put Atticus & Milo on hold to work with Dad and the engineers to complete the prototype.

In the first half of 2020 we had employed a graduate engineer – Marko Trifunovic – and run some encouraging tests. But problems kept popping up. We were still working to resolve these when, in June, time finally caught up with Dad, and he died seven weeks short of his 95th birthday.

Owen Potter had lived a full life. But we knew his life’s work was unfinished, and there was still much to do.

The pace stepped up. As well as grieving for a loving father, we had to persuade our siblings to divert some of their inheritance to OPXFLO, start the process of transforming an informal family company into one that governments and investors could fund, and complete the pilot.

Caecilia, the only one of us who had started her own business, took charge. We brought on a commercialisation expert, Haydn Wright, as part-time CEO. He quickly identified potential applications in carbon capture and seed drying.

Living up to Dad’s maxim

Current methods of carbon capture have struggled for viability, but electrification will not decarbonise industrial processes such as steel and cement making. Their carbon emissions will have to be captured until new technologies take over, and we believe the cross-flow contactor can do this better.

Seed companies dry and coat seeds with a layer to protect them against contamination using fluidised beds, and suffer spoilage when seeds stick together. Trial runs of the cross-flow contactor pilot suggest it can do these tasks more quickly and effectively, sharply reduce wastage, and increase yields and profits for seed companies and farmers. It can also accommodate natural additives to reduce soil degradation and minimise harmful chemicals in the environment.

An independent laboratory has just begun testing the prototype contactor to verify that it effectively heats sand particles. We now have to go beyond this simple test and develop specific applications for industry to attract investment.

We’re applying for grants for seed processing and carbon capture to take the firm Dad started eight years ago to the next stage. We want Venso Labs to live up to Dad’s maxim: Australian resources do not excuse Australians from resourcefulness.”

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