It takes a good deal of power...
It takes a good deal of power to drive a car at this attitude at speed. Everything has to be functioning well and all of the various systems on the car have to be operating at peak form. Alcohol fuels can deliver reliable, consistent, and repeatable power levels.
The use of alcohol as a fuel in race cars, specifically Open Wheel and in some closed wheel cars, has been a standard for many years.
What most of us don’t realize is why? When comparing alcohol to gasoline it’s not readily obvious why one would select alcohol over gasoline. For purposes of this story when we refer to alcohol we mean methanol or ethanol. Gasoline is much denser from an energy content perspective, meaning it takes less gas (versus alcohol) to make the same power. It’s easier to ignite gasoline than alcohol fuels. Gasoline is available all over the world, the quality may be different, but it’s available. Gasoline is also more compatible with the materials that are currently used in the construction of fuel systems in use on the road today, from vehicles to the infrastructure used to move it from producer to customer.
The characteristics, between the gasoline’s used in say an F1 car are worlds apart from what we use in Saturday night racing. It would be easier to get a date with Angela Jolie, even if you weren’t supplying the baby sitter, than to buy 55 gallons of the “Gasoline” used in a F1 car. It’s pretty much unobtainable to the average racer. That said, we’re still able to buy racing gasolines that are a far cry from what is available at the pump today. We have at our fingertips, and our wallets, some of the finest racing fuels that have ever been offered to the racer at any time in history. We are a truly lucky lot. While we pay for this privilege, the cost is reasonable given the amount of technology and infrastructure it takes to deliver these high quality products.
We need to look back at why alcohol was even introduced to the racing community. It boils down to one word: safety. Yes, there are other benefits but the fuel was really legislated into use due to perceived safety benefits. The great things about gasoline and its use in racing engines, is also why it’s inherently a riskier fuel than alcohol, gasoline will ignite in less than ideal conditions, as in outside the engine. And, once it’s lit, it’s harder to extinguish outside of the controlled burning that is taking place in the combustion chamber.
It’s clear that the flames...
It’s clear that the flames from alcohol are truly invisible in the bright light of day. If you look closely (in the upper left side of the picture) you can see how the light is being refracted by the heat as the alcohol, in this case methanol, is burning in the small metal dish. If this was a fire in a race car during the day you wouldn’t be able to see the flames from the alcohol until some other part of the car was burning.
If you have ever been present when a race car catches fire it’s a truly scary event, regardless of the fuel used. But gasoline is a bit more intense. The bright orange of the fire, the very intense heat, and the fact that spraying water on the fire does very little to it other than spread it around. I’m not suggesting banning gasoline as a fuel for racing; I’m just stating a fact. The fact that fires are a very rare occurrence in today’s race cars is a testament to the safety that is designed into the modern race car, at all levels of the sport.
A car that is fueled by alcohol is no less scary should it catch fire, but there are a few critical differences. The fire is much easier to extinguish with water-based fire extinguishers. In fact, water is the fire extinguisher medium of choice for alcohol fires. There is less need for special extinguishers to be used outside of the car itself.
This goes back into our racing past, in 1964 when there was a crash and a terrible fireball due to a ruptured fuel tank, early in the Indy 500 and two prominent IndyCar drivers of that time, Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald, perished as a result of that fiery crash. The following year (1965) all the cars racing under the USAC banner, including the 500, were powered by methanol as the use of gasoline was banned.
Some other alcohol facts that make it a bit safer from a fuel perspective: It burns at a much cooler temperature and slower than gasoline. Consequently, this slower burn rate, around 18 to 22 percent slower depending on the conditions, results in an open fire that is a bit less intense and easier to control with easily obtained firefighting equipment. Please do not confuse this as a “safe fire.”
The same bowl, the same amount...
The same bowl, the same amount of alcohol, only this time at night. The flame is a glowing almost neon blue. While people may talk about how cool, from a temperature perspective, alcohol burns. Make no mistake, this fire is hot; hot enough to do some serious damage to a race car and its valuable contents: the race car driver.
But not everything is all roses and honey, from a safety perspective. In the light of day, it’s almost impossible to see an alcohol flame. While it’s easier to extinguish an alcohol fire, first you have to see it. Often times you will see the driver or crew reacting to the fire before any pit personnel can see the flames. Their reaction is due to the fact they are being burned. Think back to the Indy 500 when Rick Mears was burned by a fire ignited during a pit stop. This was the genesis of IndyCar teams squirting water on the dry break fuel valve right after it’s disconnected from the car as a fire mitigating process. As a fuel, alcohol is to be treated with the same respect as any other fuel. It’s dangerous and can cause some serious injuries just like any other combustible liquid.
For the racer there seem to be many positives for using alcohol as a fuel; are there any downsides? Yes, there are a number of issues that alcohol brings to the party that are not even considerations with gasoline fuels. The first is that alcohol is hygroscopic. It will absorb water out of the air if it’s exposed to the environment. This little feature can make a perfectly acceptable jug of fuel not worth using if the water content gets too high. This feature of alky fuels is, and has been, the bane of many tuners as they make changes to the fuel system only to find that the fuel was contaminated with water.
This is also a real problem in areas that have a good bit of humidity in the air. In the Southwest it’s not a big issue but it still means that any alcohol that is stored needs to be in containers that are not vented and that the fuel should not be exposed to the environment any longer than possible.
Another downside is that many of the rubber type seals that are used in gasoline fueled cars don’t hold up when the fuel is changed to alcohol. They don’t react well with alcohol fuels, often degrading and no longer offering an acceptable seal, or even worse they degrade and contaminate the fuel downstream of their location. While this seems like a real issue, it’s simply rectified, by using seal materials that are resistant to alcohols, from the tank to the end of the fuel delivery system.
The chemical makeup of alcohol is very corrosive to many of the coatings that are typically used on metals in the fuel system. It’s not uncommon for metal components to get surface oxidization and pitting as a result of alcohol fuels. This becomes a real issue if the alcohol is allowed to sit in the fuel system between races. The fuel system should be maintained between races to prevent the alcohol in the system from turning into what is a very strong corrosive agent.
If the fuel system isn’t cleaned frequently, preferably after each race day, the corrosive nature of alcohol will play havoc with the metal and rubber components in the fuel system, especially those components not designed for this type of fuel. This isn’t a real issue as most racers who are using alcohol fuels are already familiar with the required maintenance. For those not familiar with the maintenance rigors required when using alcohol fuels; education comes quickly and with a vengeance.
Butanol has some unique characteristics; it’s the one alcohol that most closely mimics gasoline from an energy density perspective. Its stochiometric air/fuel ratio is the closest to gasoline. Due to its chemical makeup, butanol isn’t as corrosive as methanol or ethanol. While all of this sounds great, there are some issues that prevent butanol from being a viable racing fuel at this point in time. First, is that it has a fairly high melting point and at cooler room temperatures more closely resembles Vaseline than a liquid fuel. However, it does mix well with gasoline and that has some real positives for the passenger car world; however it’s not a real boon to the racing world, yet. At this time we will still focus our attention on methanol, while ethanol is gaining more acceptance.
Failure to properly maintain an alcohol fuel system will result in, aside from the corrosion, a grit like substance, almost a fine sand type of residue, in the lines and around aluminum parts. This grit is the result of an increased electrical conductivity that alcohol has over gasoline fuels. The grit is from the galvanic corrosion caused by the greater electrical conductivity from the fuel as it interacts with the various different metals in the fuel system. This contamination will migrate throughout the system clogging fuel filters, fuel jets, and generally cause havoc within the fuel system.
It’s often thought that alcohol makes power because it has a greater amount of energy. This isn’t exactly true; in fact, the type of alcohols that are commonly used in racing have less heat energy than gasoline based on the volume. There are, in fact, four types of alcohols of which only methanol and ethanol are currently used as fuels in the racing world. The other two types of alcohols, propanol and butanol, aren’t used commonly used. Propanol has more uses as an industrial solvent than as a fuel while Butanol is an interesting chemical.
This Modified is powered by...
This Modified is powered by alcohol, specifically ethanol, which in and of itself isn’t that unique. What is unique is that the ethanol was manufactured from whey, the remaining waste product from the production of dairy products, specifically cheese. Generally, whey is considered a waste product and is disposed of, typically by pouring it on fields. But, the manufacture of ethanol gives the whey a new more valuable position, and after the alcohol is made the remaining solids are used for animal feeds as they are high in protein, and the remaining pure water is reintroduced to the ecosystem. It’s this type of activity that makes much more sense than growing a food crop to manufacture fuel.
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.
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.