by Marcia Goodrich
Two thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, the Greek mathematician Hero came up with the idea for the steam turbine. English engineer Sir Charles Parsons built the first one in 1884, to generate electricity. And for the last twenty years, Steven Burdgick has fiddled, tweaked, and tinkered with steam turbines and their close cousins, gas turbines, ultimately revolutionizing aspects of a stogy, old technology.
Burdgick's fascination with turbines began soon after he graduated from Michigan Tech in 1990 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. He got his first job at General Electric Aircraft Engines working on jet engines and then transferred to GE Energy, where he earned his first patent. It was an exhilarating experience, so exhilarating that he made up his mind to get at least nine more. Pretty soon he had a dozen patents under his belt, many from designing nozzles for the world's first steam-cooled gas turbine. That innovation earned his team GE Energy's 2001 Advanced Manufacturing Award.
Then Burdgick moved to GE's steam turbine engineering group and thought his patent production days were over. "I was wrong," he recalls.
Very wrong, as it turns out. Apparently, there's always room for improvement, even in a 2,000-year-old technology. Burdgick's name is now on fifty-three US patents related to turbine design, with another twenty-five pending. Among them is yet another new nozzle, which earned GE's 2010 Product Innovation Award.
Patents aren't about inventing the wheel, Burdgick explains. "It's often not pure innovation that makes a patent; it can be making vast improvements in the design or configuration of something. It is taking what you have learned or invented in one area and applying it somewhere else."
This is what Burdgick's team did when it developed its Steam Turbine Singlet™ nozzle. "It revolutionizes seven decades of nozzle manufacturing," he says.
Building a better steam-turbine nozzle may not sound like the stuff of Nobel Prizes, but in fact, a corporate bottom line can hinge on innovations such as these. "Our most recent patents will mean hundreds of millions of dollars in value to the company because the turbine performance is so much better," he says.
According to company figures, it will also mean that turbines will generate power more cleanly, resulting in a nearly three million–ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over five years, the equivalent of taking 480,000 cars off the road.
Burdgick attributes his success in part to Michigan Tech and singles out two former professors in particular. "I will never forget the practical teaching of Dr. William Shapton and the creative teaching of Dr. Peck Cho," he says. He also credits his childhood involvement in Soap Box Derby, including a world championship he shared with his brother. "That led me to be creative, make things fit together, and design with simplicity."
Finally, he admits to being passionate about making things as good as they can be. "I have not been interested in just finding an answer to a problem," Burdgick says. "I'm determined to find the best and simplest solution."