Proving the Merits of Green Racing
When you think about combining automotive racing with environmentalism, it presents a potential battle royale of stereotypes. On the green side, picture a stereotypical environmentalist: A Birkenstock-wearing hippy armed with a polished rant about polar bears and melting ice caps. On the racing side, picture the clichéd race fan: A blue-collar gearhead who wrenches on a hot rod and thinks the Daytona 500 is a national holiday.
On the surface, the intermingling of these two personalities and philosophies are as probable as a Lindsay Lohan alibi. But guess what? They can co-exist, and I’m here to prove it. Yet before I try convincing you that green racing is an unlikely hero in our fight to reduce our dependence on oil (and just maybe save the polar bears), I’d like to frame the issue.
As a transportation research engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, I’m working toward solutions that achieve petroleum displacement. Actually, it’s not just a job, it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about. The United States currently consumes 20 million barrels of oil per day, 365 days a year. How much is 20 million barrels per day? Being an engineer, I like things I can rationalize and wrap my mind around, so I did some calculations. This is what 20 million barrels looks like:
This is one quarter of the world’s consumption of just over 85 million barrels per day. Because we import approximately 65 percent of our oil at a cost of $77 a barrel (the cost when I wrote this), that’s a billion dollars per day going somewhere else to pay for our energy needs.
Now, if you happened to venture to the U.S. Energy Information Administration website, you can find that the world’s current proved petroleum reserves stand between 1.1 and 1.35 trillion barrels. That might sound like a lot, but if you divide that number by our current rate of consumption, that puts us at around 37 years of known reserves. Now, I understand there is much debate over this number and of course there are some other means of getting petroleum and other unfound sources. But one day, perhaps sooner than later, this resource is going to become awfully scarce and the need for alternatives will be paramount.
The second major issue with petroleum centers around the issue of global climate change. Petroleum is pumped out of the ground and combusted, releasing that trapped hydrocarbon into the atmosphere as (mostly) CO2 and water vapor. This increases the concentration of atmospheric CO2, a global warming gas. China recently passed the United States in CO2 emissions, but we still account for 20 percent of global carbon emissions – and our transportation system is responsible for a third of our carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Automobiles are the single biggest contributor, therefore technologies that could address the problem could have a huge impact.
So now that I’ve framed the issue surrounding national energy security as it relates to petroleum consumption and global climate concerns, I’ll tell you how the future of racing could play a role in our country’s independent energy future.
I’m working with Circle Track magazine on Project GREEN to prove the viability of green racing. I view this as a grassroots movement that can educate the public about cleaner and more efficient automotive technologies and inspire them to support these innovations. Can almost half a million circle track racers and fans be wrong?
Race tracks are among the few venues where you’ll still find carburetors. A lot of these race cars also run on expensive emissions-spewing racing fuels that often contain lead. Our research team has shown that a fuel-injected racing car fueled by E85 can outperform the same engine with a carburetor and leaded racing fuel.
Using readily-available corn-based ethanol in an E85 mixture (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) and a customized data acquisition system, we entered one of our project cars in the annual Oktoberfest race at the La Crosse Speedway in Wisconsin. In a 33-lap race (approximately 20 miles), our Project GREEN Camaro used less gasoline than a typical small, four-cylinder sedan would in everyday city-highway driving — and our race car was hitting speeds as high as 115 mph:
Using Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET model to calculate well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions, we found:
Our hope is that if we prove race cars can run faster, more efficiently, and cheaper with fuel-injected engines burning domestically produced biofuels, these green technologies will catch on with race car drivers – and eventually in the cars of the 20 million racing fans across America.
We’re proving that the environmentalist and the gearhead can work together to hasten the adoption of clean transportation technologies. So grab your Birkenstocks and your tools and let’s go racing.
Photo: Argonne National Laboratory. The author (second from left), with the Dalton Zehr Racing crew. From left to right: chief crew mechanic Mark Jones, team owner Marty Zehr, driver Dalton Zehr, Circle Track magazine editor Robert Fisher, Argonne researcher Forrest Jehlik and electrical engineer Danny Bocci.