Handling

From a handling perspective, alcohol will cause the racer a few more considerations. Since alcohol has less heat energy than gasoline, you’ll be required to burn more of it—that means more weight at the start of the race and, due to the higher consumption rate, the car will become lighter and lighter as the race progresses.

Why is this a bad thing? Because it will change your weight and balance to a greater degree than you would have with gasoline fuel, as the fuel burns off. Yes, gasoline burns off and the car will get lighter as well, it’s just that with alcohol it will happen at a greater rate, and not only will you have to deal with the ever changing track conditions, but you will have to develop a setup that will not go away as the car gets lighter.

Of course, you can develop a setup that favors the car later in the race. The point is that the use of alcohol will not only mandate fuel system changes, but it will also mandate a different setup than gasoline.

More Power

So, just why does alcohol make more power than gasoline if it has less energy per pound than gasoline? Good question! Obviously, you will have to run more of the alcohol-based fuels to get the same power, how much more will depend on the type of alcohol you’re running. With methanol and ethanol it’s about 40 percent more than gasoline. Let me espouse some of the good characteristics that alcohol brings to the table.

First, when you burn alcohol one of the byproducts of combustion is oxygen. This helps enhance the combustion process. Another is the cooling effect of alcohol as it “vaporizes” in the inlet track. This helps create denser air as the air/fuel charge enters the engine, another positive. The cooling effect also helps to cool the engine, at least on the inlet side of the equation. Remember, producing horsepower is all about creating and controlling heat.

Another positive feature about alcohol that is seldom discussed is that the incoming fuel charge, the mixture of air and alcohol, is easier to compress than a mixture of gasoline and air. The alcohol doesn’t vaporize as well or as completely as gasoline as it comes out of the carburetor or the injector. While gasoline forms a more complete vapor, alcohol forms a “vapor” made up of many very small droplets of fuel suspended in the incoming air/fuel stream entering the engine. Then during the compression stroke, the heat of simply compressing the incoming air/fuel mixture completes the vaporization process.

So, from a mechanical perspective, your engine uses a smaller percentage of the power it’s making to sustain continued operation. Long story short, an alcohol mixture takes less energy to compress than a gasoline mixture. And, as an added bonus the last vaporization step also helps to further cool the mixture. Remember, cool, in this case, is a relative term as compared to a gasoline mixture.

Additionally, an engine that is burning methanol or ethanol can support a much higher compression ratio. It’s not uncommon to see alcohol engines using as high as 13:1 or 14:1 compression rations with little fuel-related problems. Of course, high compression engines have other mechanical issues that aren’t related to fuel. That said, alcohol can support some very high compression engines without the fuel causing detonation issues which can occur if the wrong grade of gasoline is used.

Currently, the majority of alcohol fuels are manufactured from petroleum products, in this case natural gas. More specifically, the methane that is a component of natural gas. It can also be manufactured from the pyrolysis of wood. A process that utilizes pressure, high temperature, and an absence of oxygen, one of the byproducts of this process is methanol, another is charcoal. The term wood alcohol is derived from this process. As previously discussed in other Circle Track articles, there are other sources of alcohol fuels, such as agricultural products like corn, beets, or sugar cane.

Leaving the political arguments of whether it’s good or bad to manufacture fuel from corn, beets, or sugar cane let’s jump right into the future. It seems much more economically viable to use feed stocks that are lower in cost and that we already have in our hands, than to grow or divert new feed stocks to produce fuels. Waste byproducts such as whey from the cheese making process, still contain sugars that can be turned into ethanol. It seems infinitely smarter to use this waste product or products and get all the value possible out of this resource.

As far as the racer is concerned, the more demand for alcohol fuel products the more technology will be devoted to improving the product and creating better and, hopefully, more economical methods for producing alcohol from waste products or easily renewable agricultural products. The future does look promising in this field of developing new methodologies for creating fuel from alternative sources.

The UOP division of Honeywell International this year flew a Gulfstream G450 Business Jet from New Jersey to the Paris Air Show using a “green fuel” that was composed of a 50/50 blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and Honeywell “Green Jet Fuel.” The Green Jet fuel, or biofuel, was developed using camelina. Camelina is the agro crop that doesn’t compete in the food chain and is used as a rotational crop in wheat farming.

Another benefit is that Camelina can be grown on farm land that is considered marginal and doesn’t have to compete with crops that require the best land for production. This was the very first transatlantic flight that utilized a biofuel in a business jet. While this wasn’t an alcohol-based product, it does showcase some very sound American technology that will have effects on how we develop new technologies for creating new fuel feed stocks, and this will have implications in how alcohol products are developed.

It may not be too far off into the future that we see commercially available alcohol-based fuels that are created from algae feed stocks or cellulouse waste products. The idea that we could take garbage and turn it into the feed stocks that are used to develop fuel isn’t just a pipe dream it may become a reality. Who knows, landfills may be the next American energy fields; garbage may be the next black gold.

Moving forward, it will not only be the general consumer who will benefit from this type of new technology development but racers as well. The future does indeed look very bright.