Last Farewell to Piotr Wolanski

Saying Goodbye to a Mentor and Collaborator of Rocket Science

On August 31, 2023, friend and collaborator of the University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering Department, Professor Piotr Wolanski passed away, leaving a longstanding legacy behind him. Wolanski was an expert on detonation propulsion, combustion, rocket propulsion and had been a long-time collaborator with the Aero Department at U-M. 

Piotr Wolanski started his career in aviation in Warsaw, Poland at Warsaw University of Technology and was a professor at the Institute of Aviation. He served as Associate Dean (1980-1984) and Dean (1987-1990) of the Faculty of Power and Aerospace Engineering and Pro-Rector for Scientific Research (2002-2005) of the Warsaw University of Technology before retiring. Additionally, Wolanski was Second Vice-Chairman of the UN Committee of Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (2012 -2014), he was the Chairman of the Committee of Space Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (2002-2018) and was a member of the Board of the Polish Space Agency (2015-2020).

Not only did he possess a wide range of knowledge on pressing topics, but he was also honored with a variety of prestigious awards throughout the course of his career. Additionally, for over 20 years, he supervised the Student’s Astronautical Association. Under Wolanski’s direction, this organization built the first Polish satellite, PW-Sat, which was launched into space in 2012; and PW-Sat2, which launched into orbit in 2019.

Wolanski started visiting U-M in the 1980s, when he spent time as a visiting researcher. Specifically, Wolanski worked closely with the U-M Department of Aerospace Engineering, including faculty in detonations and explosions, including professors Martin Sichel, Thomas Adamson and James Arthur Nicholls. These individuals were part of the gas dynamics group, which focused on the physics of explosions and detonation waves. Since then, Wolanski has collaborated with the Aero department and visited campus multiple times, most recently visiting U-M in 2018.

His gracious collaborations with Michigan Aerospace faculty and students during his frequent visits will forever be remembered and cherished throughout the department. He was a dedicated scientist whose passion for Aerospace started at a young age and led him to publish over 400 publications in journals and conference papers.

“Piotr Wolanski was a friend and collaborator of our department in the physics and applications of explosions, detonations and propulsion. He had many active collaborations, spent time and visited U-M throughout the years in these last 50 years or so. His passing is very sad news. His pioneering work is what gave impetus to many recent activities and successes in our department,” explains Mirko Gamba, Michigan Aerospace Associate Professor.

Thanks to the generosity from the François-Xavier Bagnoud Foundation, which funded the current home of the Aerospace Engineering department, the François-Xavier Bagnoud Building (FXB), Wolanski’s connection with our department was even more profound. He was particularly proud of this Polish connection to our department and it is one of the many things that led him to come back to U-M over and over.

Among his greatest work and research was the development of detonative propulsion; extensive works on understanding the nature of gaseous, dust, and hybrid detonations; and the discovery of so-called “Diffusion Ignition,” which is the process of self-ignition of gas flowing out from high-pressure installation. His research in dust explosions led to the creation of the “International Symposium on Prevention and Mitigation of Industrial Explosions” organized worldwide, which he was chairing for over twenty years.

One of his major contributions in recent years was on the advancements of rotating detonation engines (RDE) in both rocket and air-breathing propulsion. A RDE is a particularly attractive technology because it offers a relatively simple system that can operate stably while providing performance benefits to both applications. Many of his contributions in the domain helped shape the current understanding of these devices across applications.

“Piotr was a generous researcher, who actively promoted junior researchers in this area. His many visits to Michigan between 2016-2019 set the stage for some of the detonations-related work being pursued in our department,” comments Michigan Aerospace Professor Venkat Raman.

Piotr Wolanski was an outstanding mentor in the field and a large supporter of students and colleagues who shared his love for aviation and aerospace science. He will be strongly missed here at U-M, but never forgotten.