The consequences of American dependence on foreign oil are being hammered home once again by soaring gasoline prices and escalating tensions in the Middle East.

But research at the Advance Combustion Engineering Research Center at Brigham Young University may help the United States make greater use of the low-cost, low-quality fuels abundant in this country - coal, shale-oil, natural gas, tar sands and heavy petroleum liquids - thus easing dependence on foreign oil.Coal is the most plentiful fossil fuel in America; there are an estimated 430 billion metric tons of discovered coal reserves in the United States. Of that amount, 55 percent is found in Western states, including Utah.

"The principal thrust is to learn how to burn these fuels in ways that would be more efficient and . . . produce less pollution," said Michael King, center manager. "The combustion of fossil fuels has an enormous impact on our society."

BYU cooperates in combustion research with the University of Utah, which also operates a combustion center. BYU's center is in its fifth year of operation.

Research at BYU is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and contributions from 25 industrial organizations. The National Science Foundation, which first funded the center in 1986, gave BYU more than $2 million this summer.

"The initial NSF $9.7 million grant established the center and was a much coveted recognition of the history of successful research in combustion at BYU," said L. Douglas Smoot, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology and center director.

"Continued funding recognized fundamental center accomplishments that may help solve many urgent national and international energy-related problems such as smog, acid rain and small-particle pollution inherent in the use of fossil fuels," he said.

Goals of the center are threefold: to develop fundamental combustion engineering knowledge and technology; train and educate students to address energy problems and issues; and transfer developed combustion technology to industry to help solve crucial combustion problems.

Research at the combustion center does not result in development of specific commercial processes. However, it does provide information that can be used to develop more efficient combustion methods - particularly in the form of fundamental and applied research results and computer software used to develop combustion systems.

For example, the center developed mathematical simulations of the coal combustion process that are in use throughout the world, King said.