Utah State University undergrad biochemist Michael R. Morgan sat inside the “Aggie Blue” race car at the Logan-Cache Airport on Tuesday morning — only his helmet visible to onlookers — as the engine started to roar.
And then, off Morgan went, down the half-mile stretch of the old airport runway as fellow classmates and faculty members watched him almost disappear. A minute or two later, he returned at the starting point. When he got out of the vehicle, he showed off his racing uniform, the same color as the Aggie A-Salt Streamliner.
For Morgan, whose family comes from a drag racing background, the experience never gets old. But Tuesday’s run was a stark contrast to racing the vehicle at the Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway for the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s “World of Speed” event, held Sept. 8-11. USU set the record at 64.396 mph — the average the organization gave USU after two runs on the flat.
“It was amazing; I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Morgan said Tuesday about the speed event. “You’re driving in a place where all you see is the curvature of the Earth.”
The biofueled vehicle — which comes with a one-liter, two-cylinder engine — runs on yeast biodiesel derived from the industrial waste of cheese production.
“Even the announcer noted that this was a lot different than the diesel he had ever smelled, like it was someone baking bread,” said USU professor Lance Seefeldt, a mentor on the interdisciplinary project.
Morgan and other students in the Colleges of Science and Agriculture, led by professors Seefeldt and Bruce Bugbee, worked for more than a year to perfect the production of the fuel using yeast and bacterial platforms. They also developed fuel from carbon dioxide and the sun using microalgae platforms.
The algae and bacterial platforms were tested by team members in the College of Engineering, led by Byard Wood, head of the mechanical, aerospace, and engineering department, using a dynamometer — a small generator diesel engine that sits on a platform to measure both the horsepower and emissions from the engine.
Other universities have tried the same kinds of experiments with biofuels running in a vehicle, but USU’s findings are definitely unique, Morgan said.
“Everyone is working toward the same goal. That’s why we wanted to get each of those fuels and run them ... so we could stick the pole in the ground and say, ‘We got it’ — and we did,” Morgan said.
Initially, the USU team did not plan to use the biofuels to compete in a race, but, “We got some premium-quality fuels, and we wanted to put our fuels to the test and make them compete in top categories,” Seefeldt said. “We thought we could make a car .... that was pretty easy to afford because we had a limited budget.”
The dragster team, led by Michael D. Morgan, director of USU Engineering’s Student Prototype Laboratory — and father of the car’s undergraduate driver — built the diesel streamliner, with assistance from Utah Chassis and Mott Motorsports, in preparation for the September competition.
“None of us had rode in the Salt Flats before,” the younger Morgan said of his family. “It was lots of long hours (to build) because we wanted to be able to make it to the event this year. ... We finished (the streamliner) just before we loaded it onto the trailer to compete in the race.”
Both USU students and researchers said developing a biofuel on a large enough scale to run in the dragster was “a tough undertaking.”
The goal for next year’s race: Get the streamliner to run on a renewable biofuel based on algae. Morgan said they didn’t develop enough of this type of diesel to compete in the race.
USU students are already working on getting the streamliner to go even faster than 64 mph.