A race car designed and built by Utah State University students set the land speed record for a petroleum-fueled diesel streamliner this week.
Never mind that the 64 mph record was broken a few days later by another team also competing in a small-engine class of the four-day World of Speed event in Utah’s West Desert.
No, what mattered most to the USU team was the unofficial run the team took after its two official runs.
For the third run, USU professors and students removed the petroleum fuel mandated by event organizers and filled the streamliner’s tank with a brew of their own: a biofuel processed by using yeast to convert dairy waste, a leftover liquid from the cheese-making process, into high-quality fuel.
“We actually exceeded our official record (by 1 mph), but it doesn’t count,” said Lance Seefeldt, USU professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
“We’ve been working several years to make better biofuels. We started about six years ago with funding from USTAR (the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative, which supports science and technology research at Utah’s institutions of higher learning) and have been working with one from algae and one from dairy industry waste.
“We were pretty convinced they are superior fuels, so we ran some test engines, and they ran fantastic. So we decided we would build a car.”
Oh yeah. USU students decided to design and build a streamline racer, also something they hadn’t attempted before.
“We only started at the beginning of summer, and it usually takes at least a year, but we had a team of very dedicated people, and they worked night and day, and they put us together a first-class car,” Seefeldt said.
The USU race car has an 870 cubic centimeter engine, about the size of a small commercial-grade lawn mower. Imagine a riding mower traveling at highway speeds.
The first-time driver was Mike Morgan, a USU biochemistry undergrad with drag racing in his family.
“My uncle Rex was a top fuel driver, and my mom and dad met through their drag-strip driving. So I guess it’s in my DNA,” said Morgan, 25, of Hyrum.
“The team used a very experienced chassis-building guy, Dave Mott, who did my dad’s car.”
The sleek, low racer that Morgan helped build was much more comfortable than his usual ride, a ’98 Ford Explorer.
“The car fit me like a glove. It was built to fit me exactly,” said Morgan, who is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 200 pounds.
“I also got to help make the fuel. The coolest part was to drive the car I helped build and helped make the fuel for.
“How many people get to drive a car with fuel that they created from a living microorganism?”
Morgan had never before visited the West Desert, where many of the world’s land speed records are set.
“Racing across the Salt Flats is amazing. There is nothing like it. As you get strapped into the car with all of your safety gear on and fire the car up, it becomes just you and the car,” he said.
“You feel the car take off as you rumble down the track, giving the car everything she’s got. It’s amazing, as you are completely alone with no real markers to judge where you are, other than the signs saying one mile, two miles, etc., as you are zipping along.
“The Salt Flats lay out before you in an expanse so far that you can see the curvature of the earth. It’s just you and the car, and there is no better, more amazing feeling.”
Seefeldt is just as proud of the way multiple USU departments worked together to accomplish their goal.
“This is a joint effort between three different colleges,” he said.
“It’s rare for people to work across colleges, marrying the expertises of each group. It’s a major education boost to students in each group. It’s just a totally unique learning experience you don’t see that often in universities.”
Seefeldt and his students from chemistry and biochemistry worked with students from the Plants, Soils and Climate Department, led by professor Bruce Bugbee.
Students studying engineering at Utah State worked together to build the racer.
“We want to go back to the World of Speed next year,” Seefeldt said. “Students in engineering are working on aerodynamics and performance upgrades. In chemistry, we are working on our fuels from micro algae.”
And Morgan is ready to climb back into the driver’s seat, if asked.
“It’s going to be an exciting year,” he said. “At next year’s race, I think we can do a lot better.”