At Brookhaven National Laboratory, where researchers probe atomic matter to unlock secrets of the universe, Tom Butcher has made a science out of studying everyday furnaces, boilers and chimneys.
Butcher, who for decades has led the lab's energy conversion group, is among the world's foremost experts on home heating systems. His research has revolutionized nearly every aspect of the industry, making burners and exhaust systems more efficient, proving the viability of fuels derived from plant and animal fats and prompting sweeping regulations to reduce pollution.
"He has very quietly been responsible for more technological innovations than anyone over the course of 30 years . . . and has saved consumers a tremendous amount of money," said Kevin Rooney, chief executive of the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island.
Brookhaven, a U.S. Department of Energy lab and home to seven Nobel Prizes, boasts dozens of projects dedicated to energy, including work on solar power, battery technology and superconductivity. Yet, officials say Butcher's study of workaday home heating appliances has perhaps had the greatest tangible impact.
His collaborations with manufacturers to develop better oil-fired boilers, they say, have helped homeowners in the United States cut their fuel use by up to 80 percent in recent decades, allowing them to save an estimated $24 billion since 1980.
Butcher's research prompted New York State to enact regulations in 2012 to virtually eliminate sulfur from heating oil. And his study proving the viability of fuels derived from soybeans, turkey fat and recycled vegetable oil led to a 2014 decision by ASTM International, an organization that develops standards for a wide variety of products, approving heating oil blends containing up to 20 percent of biodiesel.
Biodiesel, introduced in 1993, has become a key piece of Butcher's work in recent years. Asked why during an interview, Butcher smiled and his voice quickened.
"It's domestic. It's renewable. It helps stabilize heating oil prices . . . Oh gosh, I could go on and on," Butcher, 61, said while sitting in his office in a low-slung building on Brookhaven's wooded campus in Upton.
Butcher, who grew up in Northport and lives in Port Jefferson, runs his experiments out of a nearby cinder-block building. The labs are lined with heating equipment, rigged with sensors and wires. The warm hum of boilers is ever-present.
During a tour of his lab, Butcher demonstrated one of his latest experiments, incorporating tiny solar panels into a standard gas-fired boiler's combustion chamber. The panels capture light from the gas flames, converting it into electricity. That power feeds the unit's electrical system, resulting in a boiler that doesn't need to be plugged in and, theoretically, could work during blackouts.
"At least that's the hope," Butcher said.
The heart of Butcher's work is devising ways to accurately test fuels and equipment, then sharing the results with manufacturers and government regulators. His conclusions are often crucial in companies' decisions whether to incorporate new technology, industry experts say.
"We look to Tom to validate and certify that the new fuels are OK to use in our equipment," said John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance, based in Alexandria, Virginia. "I trust Tom as much as I trust myself."
Butcher, whose father worked in the marketing department for a Syosset heating oil company, arrived at Brookhaven in 1978, after receiving his master's degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
He was drawn to boilers and furnaces in part because they combined disciplines he loves: engineering, physics and chemistry. But there was also something refreshing and tangible about applying science to the business of heating homes, he said. "It's so darn important," said Butcher, who later earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stony Brook University.
In the late 1970s, heating systems weren't much more efficient than potbellied stoves. Roughly one of out every three gallons of oil delivered to homes was wasted inside inefficient combustion chambers. Much of the heat, meanwhile, went up the chimney.
Butcher and his team set out to pinpoint where heat escapes from boilers, then published their findings so manufacturers could improve designs.
One of those companies was Energy Kinetics Inc. of Lebanon, New Jersey. The founder, John Marran, read Brookhaven's studies closely when he incorporated in 1979. A key finding was that boilers wasted a tremendous amount of energy to maintain a constant temperature in case someone wanted hot water.
Using Brookhaven's conclusions, Marran designed a boiler that could quickly heat small amounts of water instead of continually burning fuel to keep the entire system hot. The result was a far more efficient boiler, said Roger Marran, who took over the company from his father and is now its president and chief executive.
"Brookhaven had developed enough science to explain why these things happened so that solutions could be developed in the market to fix them," said Roger Marran, whose company continues to work with Brookhaven and Butcher.
Butcher and his colleagues spent years developing ways to keep heat from wafting out of chimneys. Some argue that they have been too successful.
For chimneys to work, exhaust must be hot. (Remember: hot air rises.) Yet Butcher and others have been so successful at keeping heat from escaping boilers that the fumes they emit are cooler and cooler each year. Some scientists fear that boilers are on the verge of becoming so efficient that their exhaust will be too cool to rise, leaving it to condense inside chimneys and damage bricks. Boilers, they say, are efficient enough.
Butcher, however, disagrees. Yesterday's architecture, he said, should not impede the heating systems of tomorrow.
"The age of the chimney is over," he said. "I want to get rid of the chimney completely."
A big piece of Butcher's current research hearkens back to the original renewable fuel: wood.
Over the last decade, thousands of Americans have turned to wood-burning boilers as heating oil prices have peaked on and off. Wood is cheap. And it literally grows on trees. The trend has made wood the number one renewable resource for heating homes, Butcher said.
The downside, however, is that burning wood releases tiny particles into the air, causing a health risk. Butcher said wood-fired boilers are now a bigger source of particulate pollution in New York State than diesel trucks.
So Butcher and his team are studying ways to burn wood cleanly. They have set up a lab to test ultraefficient boilers that burn compact wood pellets or use two-stage combustion systems to convert logs into a flammable gas. And for the past two years they have hosted contests in which companies compete to build the cleanest-burning wood boilers.
"If we are going to do this wood thing," Butcher said. "We should do it right."