The early 1980s were very tough times economically in Central Alberta. New federal energy policies, followed by a sharp decline in world petroleum prices, sent the all-important oil and gas sector into a sudden and deep recession.
However, even in a serious economic slump, local entrepreneurship and innovativeness can shine.
One strong example of that came in 1981 with Rod MacDonald, a local businessman and inventor who developed the MacIgnitor, a reliable and effective method of flare ignition in the oil and natural gas industry.
Rod MacDonald was born on Boxing Day, 1948, the grandson of Delburne area pioneers Sam and Jessie MacDonald, and the eldest son of John and Doreen MacDonald.
Rod MacDonald took his education at Delburne and Red Deer Composite High School. He then attended the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology where he trained both as a draftsman and then as an electrician.
After going to school and working in Edmonton, he moved back to Central Alberta in the early 1970s, with his wife Faye. MacDonald then worked as an electrician and also helped out with the family farming operation. Later, he and his wife bought the piece of land which had been first acquired by his great-grandparents almost 100 years ago and later owned by his grandparents and Uncle Ike.
He owned and operated MacDonald’s Cross-Country Electric and did a good deal of electrical contract work.
MacDonald found himself one day fixing flare ignition systems. He decided he could probably come up with a more reliable electronic ignition system, particularly for deadly sour gas flares.
In 1981, he came up with the MacIgnitor and had his invention patented.
A new company, Mactronic Systems, was established in partnership with MacDonald’s Cross Country Electric and Port-A-Test System.
Because the MacIgnitor proved effective not only with flare stack ignitions, but also with flare pits and offshore operations, it became very popular.
By 1984, it was estimated that nearly 90 per cent of all oil and natural gas companies in Alberta used the MacIgnitor. Moreover, a new version, the Mini-MacIgnitor, currently lights the flare on top of the Calgary Tower.
In 1984, MacDonald was one of the nominees for the prestigious national Ernest Manning Award which had been established in 1980 to encourage Canadian innovators.
In 1991, he was awarded the Innovative Award of Excellence by the Energy Resources Conservation Board for an invention that proved to be exceptionally dependable and friendly to the environment.
Meanwhile, MacDonald sold his shares in Mactronic Systems. He started a new business, known as Beam Resources, which marketed a Finnish computer-aided creativity software program, known as Idegen, across North America.
In 1997, he and his son Scott started a firm known as Noise Solutions. This company is a general acoustical contractor providing turn-key services with guaranteed noise levels and specializing in industrial noise analysis and suppression.
The services include noise impact assessments, noise risk assessments, consulting engineering, installations and industry training services. The products include silencers for natural gas compressors, coal bed methane mining, engine exhausts, and the aero space industry for NASA.
Noise Solutions has a manufacturing plant at Delburne, with sales offices in Calgary and Denver, Colorado. Today, 95 per cent of the components of the company’s products are manufactured at the Delburne plant. Sales for the company are currently up 82 per cent over those recorded in the first six months of last year.
The MacIgnitor continues to be sold internationally and is manufactured by Mactronic Enerflex Innovations.
The MacIgnitor is still considered to be an industry leader in “flare ignition technology, the manufacture of flare and combustion systems and in environmental developments that optimize the management of flare gas releases.”
When MacDonald was at NASA doing noise suppression work, he discovered that NASA had a problem lighting their hydrogen flare stack. NASA soon did extensive analysis of the MacIgnitor, determined its impeccable reliability and then purchased the Solar MacIgnitors for the critical ignition of their hydrogen flare systems.
Both in good times and bad, Rod MacDonald remains an excellent example of an innovative entrepreneur and business person. He often uses an old quote from Henry Ford “if you think you can — or think you can’t, either way you will be right.”
Michael Dawe is the curator of history for the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.