Monday, August 1, 2011

The Conversion to Biofuels, and why it matters.

It was announced over the weekend that the H1 Unlimited Air National Guard Series will make a conversion to biofuels for the 2012 season.  Although this news isn’t the attention grabber of a new sponsor or a new race site, this news could be the most important change that H1 has ever made.  Not only does it make the sport of Unlimited Hydroplane racing more environmentally sustainable, it opens the door for more innovation and gives the sport the opportunity to take the lead on a very important topic.
                Motorsports has a long history of innovation.  This dates all the way back to the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, when Ray Harroun had a rearview mirror installed on one seated his Marmon Wasp.  In powerboat racing, the innovations began first with the ability to plane over the water and have evolved from there to the modern, propriding, pickleforked, horizontal stabilizer, cabover, turbine powered, enclosed cockpit, thin propeller, large skidfin machines that race today.  Unfortunately, regulations and a refuse to change anything has stymied innovation in many of the more popular forms of racing today, as evidenced by the fact that NASCAR still uses carburetors and leaded gasoline.
                With the switch to biofuels, H1 Unlimited is grabbing an opportunity to be at the forefront of innovation and take the lead on a very important issue.  There is no guarantee that it will be successful.  IndyCar tried something similar a few years ago with a switch to ethanol, but that project was abandoned when further research showed that ethanol  was not as environmentally sustainable as first thought.  For H1’s purposes they will be using a blend of camelina (a plant that is native to the western United States and grows in the wild) and the usual kerosene Jet A fuel.  Boeing has been at the forefront of research & development of camelina and has used the biofuel on an experimental basis for some commercial flights. 
                H1’s use of the camelina based biofuel offers the best possible test vehicle for the new fuel.  Since performance is always a top priority in motorsports, the teams in H1 will certainly come up with new innovations and show haw the fuel can perform in ways that no one could have before imagined.  In 2009 Boeing partnered with the Ellstrom team to run the former E-Lam primary hull on biofuels.  With Chip Hanauer at the wheel the old hull actually posted a time that was faster than any of the qualified boats for the event.  Now it should be said that the boat wasn’t running with the same fuel restrictions as the other Unlimited Hydroplanes, it had one of the best crews in the sport preparing the boat, and of course one of the sport’s all time legends was behind the wheel.  Even with all that though, the fact that the old hull was able to turn a lap exceeding a 150 mph average shows that there was no considerable dropoff when using biofuels and perhaps it was even responsible for an increase in performance.  It is also a testament to the Lycoming T-55 engine, which is easily the most reliable engine in powerboat racing and perhaps even one of the most reliable engines in all of motorsports, as it can race on multiple kinds of fuel.  The next step in experimentation will be taken this weekend, as Webster Racing’s U-22 team will not only qualify but will race while using the biofuel.  It will act an experiment to test the feasibility of all boats making the change, but if one boat can change from petroleum based fuel to biofuel in one week, certainly the entire fleet can make the change in an offseason.
                This change is beneficial to the sport for a number of reasons.  First, the innovation gets more people involved in the sport.  Boeing is already getting more involved, as they see the benefit that H1’s use of biofuel in turbine engines could have for their own use of biofuel in aviation.  Washington State University is also on board with the project.  If the switch to biofuels is ultimately successful, it will lead to more individuals and groups willing to get involved in hydroplane racing and to offer their own innovations.  Naturally this will also lead to more sponsorships, as has already been shown by the Boeing and the Project WSU sponsored boats.  Also, an interesting point was made on WORX yesterday that this will garner more media attention for the sport, especially if there is some kind of speed record established but also if H1 shows that a conversion to biofuels can be made with either no dropoff or even an increase in performance.   Of course, more media attention will also mean more attention for sponsors so this is an all-around good experiment.
                Finally and most importantly, it makes hydroplane racing more environmentally sustainable.  I’m a big motorsports enthusiast, but I’m also concerned with the impact it has on the ecosystem.  I’m not what would be considered a treehugger by any means but I still realize the need for increased sustainability and to curb the wild rate of consumption.  If H1 can make a positive step in becoming more environmentally sustainable it will make me more proud of the sport I love than I have ever been.  Furthermore, if the innovations used in hydroplane racing can be applied to commercial aviation, then hydroplane racing can be seen as at least partially responsible for helping to make a cleaner planet.  All of this is why this weekend’s news of the switch to biofuels has the potential to be the most important news in many years for hydroplane racing.

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