May 31, 2006

Tale of two fuels: Cornell team is knocked out of race-car competition, but skill and comeback amaze everyone

Cornell student engineers did not win the FSAE world championship race-car competition this year -- as they did last year and in eight previous years -- possibly due to an error by the competition organizers. But with pit work worthy of Indianapolis pros, the team pulled out a satisfying consolation, winning the 2006 Road and Track trophy over seemingly impossible odds. The team will be featured in Road and Track magazine later this year.

As related by Brad Anton, professor of chemical and biological engineering, the story is one of initial frustration, small triumphs, a devastating setback and a final redemption -- or at least a moral victory.

Al George, the J.F. Carr Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is the faculty adviser to Cornell's student team, assisted by Anton. The annual competition, organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), challenges student teams to build a Formula SAE race car and drive it in a series of tests. The competition was held May 17-20 at the Ford Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich. Cornell has won four out of the last five years, and nine times since it first entered the competition two decades ago.

As in several years past, the Cornell team designed its car to run on an alternative fuel, this time E85 ethanol, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. In order to promote the development of alternative fuels, the U.S. Department of Energy has offered additional prizes to teams that win with cars using the alternative fuel DOE designates. "We've won thousands of dollars extra over the years by using DOE-sponsored fuel," Anton said, adding that the fuel apparently offers a performance advantage. Only about 10 other teams designed their cars for E85.

But when those teams filled up with fuel provided by the organizers, Cornell's car refused to start, as did several other E85 vehicles. After an all-nighter of troubleshooting, the Cornell students drained the fuel from their car and refueled with commercial E85. And the car started.

The jury is still out, but according to a student team from Iowa -- which might be expected to know something about ethanol -- the organizers' fuel was not E85 but almost pure ethanol. Without the gasoline additive, Anton explained, straight ethanol doesn't provide enough flammable vapor to start the car.

"We decided that we had to be good sports and do the best we could in a bad circumstance," Anton said.

The team had lost so much time that they missed one of the performance driving events, but they scored well in two others. Although they had fallen behind, they were still within striking distance if they could win the endurance event, worth 400 of the 1,000 points at stake for the entire competition. In this race, two drivers each drive 10 laps. After outstanding performance in the first 10 laps, Cornell's car started smoking and was disqualified, losing any chance for a comeback.

The engine had overheated and was seriously damaged. "We suspect we damaged the engine by turning it over again and again for 20 hours, trying to start it on pure ethanol," Anton said.

Ordinarily it would have been time to pack up and go home. But, based on its excellent performance in the first few events, Cornell was one of five teams selected by Road and Track magazine for a special afternoon run-off competition on a slalom course.

To the amazement of everyone, the Cornell team completely rebuilt its engine in two-and-a-half hours. "Other teams and spectators were watching our members in awe," said Jonathan Green, business team leader for the Cornell group. "It was pretty amazing. The team started the motor on the first try."

In a dynamometer measurement, the resurrected car rated 86 horsepower, second only to a car from Finland, barely ahead at 87 horsepower.

And, "We went out to the Road and Track event and killed everybody," Anton said. "We were very, very proud of the team."

Ultimately, Cornell came in at 34th place out of 125 entries in the overall competition, having received high scores for design, presentation and cost as well as in the two completed driving events.