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Bradley Hilltopics

Fall 2008 • Volume 14, Issue 4  

Start your flex-fuel engine!

By JUSTIN PHELPS ’05
Photography by Duane Zehr and Kevin May

A week before Thanksgiving 2007, CHRISTOPHER MASSEY ’08, KENJI OMURA ’08, CHRIS MATERA ’08, and JARED ABRY ’08 were already thinking about finals in the spring. The four students were enrolled in Senior Design, the mechanical engineering program’s two-semester capstone course, and their innovative project could have a large impact on the alternative-fuel revolution. Massey, Omura, Matera and Abry — Team 6 — pursued every source of information available to them, including textbooks, Google, and talking with experts at Bradley. However, they had much to discover in preparing to convert Peoria dentist Dr. Richard McKone’s 1967 Aston Martin DB6 from a carbureted internal combustion engine into a fuel-injected, flex-fuel vehicle to compete in a remake of the 1908 Great Race, a cross-continental race from New York to Paris. And the clock was ticking.

The design

Team 6, like the other 14 teams in the class, spent the first semester of the course working on the design of their project. They determined what parts to buy, what parts to manufacture, and how it would all fit together.

The ethanol conversion project can be broken down into two main components. First, the group needed to convert the historical British sports car from a gasoline-operated internal combustion engine to a fuel-injected engine. While this is a relatively common change, the group, which has grown up with fuel-injected vehicles, had to research internal combustion engines before determining a course of action. “At that point, I don’t think any of the students had taken our class on engines, so we had to go over a lot of basic engineering of engines,” said Dr. Scott Post, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “The Dean of the College of Engineering, Richard Johnson, also got involved, meeting with the team to teach them how engines and fuel injectors work, and helping them troubleshoot a problem with the fuel injectors when they were in the final stages of testing.”

The considerably more difficult component was converting the engine to a flex-fuel, or E-85, engine. “The fuel-injection system is nothing that hasn’t been done, so that’s not as difficult to overcome,” Massey said. “But it’s not as common for people to say they want to switch a car into a flex-fuel vehicle.” Car manufacturers have determined how to convert vehicles, but the information is highly protected. “GM and Ford have more or less worked out the kinks,” Matera said. “And we want to figure out what they do. I’ve looked under the hood of a flex-fuel vehicle, but you really can’t get an idea. So you’re trying to get information people don’t want to give out.”

However, some individuals who made the conversion with their own vehicles have posted the process on the Internet. Many farmers and mechanics make the conversion, especially with pickup trucks. “But what worked on their ’64 Ford pickup may not have any relevance to what you want to do,” Post said. “The students first had to understand the science and engineering behind how engines and flex-fuel conversions work. But they also had to endure a bit of trial and error testing to complete the project.”

The mechanics

Team 6 hit a number of roadblocks, detours, and bumps in the road second semester, when groups implement the designs created first semester. The team returned to Peoria the first week of January to start working on the car. However, they weren’t given access to the car until January 20. Even then, it had a promotional appearance a week later and had to be operational for the appearance.

They were given garage space at nearby Doyle Automotive to house and work on the car. But mid-semester, they had a scare when they were told they’d lose the space because of a change in ownership. About the same time, they learned the car would also need to run on propane. While Team 6 wasn’t responsible for creating a propane system for the car, their flex-fuel design would have to allow space for the propane system.

Both plans were changed. They were allowed to stay at Doyle through the end of the semester, and the system was switched back to the original plan of requiring only ethanol and gasoline. Despite the setbacks, Team 6 started the Aston Martin on April 3. Of the eight teams working with autos in the course, they were the first to start their car.

Team 6 estimated 1,000 man-hours were needed to complete the conversion and test the system, including seven 10-12 hour days during spring break. “This was Panama City or Cancun for us,” Abry said of the small shop, which left little room to maneuver around the car.

McKone was pleased with the results of the conversion. “They did a great job,” he said. “It’s an interesting project for them. The mileage increased tremendously, but that’s more a function of injection. Usually you lose 10 to 12 percent mileage with ethanol, but the carburetors were highly inefficient.” Before the conversion, the car’s fuel mileage was about 14 miles per gallon. After the change, it was 21.9 mpg with ethanol. “All I required was mileage with ethanol, but we’re guessing the mileage with gasoline will go to 23 or 24,” McKone said. “It’s a huge difference. But the point is we can make an old car like that run on ethanol. The technology is there.”

From left, CHRISTOPHER MASSEY ’08, JARED ABRY ’08, KENJI OMURA ’08, and CHRIS MATERA ’08
converted a 1967 Aston Martin DB6 to compete as one of four alternative-fuel vehicles in the Great Race in April 2009.
Start your flex-fuel engine!

The course

Bradley’s mechanical engineering department is considered one of the best in the nation, in part because of the Senior Design course. While students in other programs might build robots that climb a wall, Bradley teams built a formula car and a Baja car, both from inception. One group worked with John Deere to improve combine technology. Another group worked with a major entertainment company to improve the animatronics of theme-park characters. Two teams produced a zero-emissions ultra-light urban vehicle, an electric car that uses hydraulics to give it a boost to start. Another group created a biomedical training simulator. “It’s becoming more common to go to companies to find these projects,” Dr. Scott Post said. “What’s unique is the level at which we do this. A lot of schools do the formula car as a two-year project. We give seniors nine months and a confining budget.”