Biodiesel Plus STEM Equals Speed - Greenspeed
Speed thrills. It touches all the senses; the low rumble of a high-performance engine, the wind rushing through your hair, the smell of french fries…
As a purpose-driven branding agency, we’re always looking for people who are out to change the world. We tend to gravitate toward those who aren’t afraid to take a few chances and bust up the routine. So when we hear of someone innovating in areas we hold dear—renewable energy, sustainability, and super-fast cars—well then that’s someone we have to meet.
Back in 2010, engineering student Dave Schenker had a crazy idea: What if a person—or a team of people—could break the land speed record for a vehicle powered by vegetable oil? And what if that exercise helped drive interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)—fields that are often perceived as stodgy or even boring?
“When you talk about engineers, people tend to picture a guy in a long, white lab coat,” Schenker said. “I wanted to do something to show that’s not necessarily the case and maybe help change that perception.”
Enter Greenspeed, a scrappy, student-run club at Boise State University that’s evolved into a real force for STEM education. Schenker and the Greenspeed crew combined a passion for sustainability and renewable energy with a love of STEM, building kick-ass machinery, and good old-fashioned speed.
“Dave and I are hands-on learners and it can be hard for us to learn simply from books,” said Patrick Johnston, an original Greenspeed member. “We found a lot of other students are that way as well.”
And Greenspeed wasn’t just for gearheads, math wizards, and engineers. To be successful, the project needed students from all backgrounds: fundraising, business management, marketing, graphic design. Beyond a record-setting run, the club’s goal was to be an enterprise and an opportunity for everyone.
“Ultimately, we founded Greenspeed as a way to connect the classroom to real-life learning,” Schenker said. “We accomplished that goal by building the world’s fastest vegetable-oil-powered vehicle.”
The plan was simple: turn a 1998 Chevy S-10 pickup into a precision racing machine, hurl it across the Bonneville Salt Flats, and set the world record. Turns out people top 200 mph at Bonneville fairly regularly running gas or diesel, but no one had ever done it burning vegetable oil. In fact, before Greenspeed came along, no one had even topped 100.
The team worked fast. In March of 2011, club members found and purchased the Chevy off Craigslist. Two months later a local business offered up some space with a discounted lease, and the team had a place to turn a wrench. In May the call went out to sponsors and, with parts flowing in, the truck was rolling by mid-August.
In August the truck hit the salt flats—proving grounds. Initial testing showed it was fast, but it proved too soon to try a run with vegetable oil. The team put the truck through its paces running traditional diesel and identified the necessary kinks to work out.
In November, at a two-day event deep in the Mojave Desert, they did it. On day one they hit 139 (easily beating the existing record) and the following day the speedometer touched 155. The Chevy was officially the “World’s Fastest Vegetable Oil-powered Vehicle.”
“Nobody has pushed a vegetable-oil vehicle like we have, it was a very successful experiment.”
Schenker and Johnston have since graduated from Boise State and now head up Greenspeed Research. They still have the Chevy and they still go to the salt flats. In 2013 they topped 200 mph, but they haven’t been able to improve, only because the event was canceled in 2014 and ’15 due to bad weather. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy. Over the past few years they’ve generated media coverage in The New York Times and on CNN, and rubbed elbows with top-ranking government officials at the Washington Auto Show. In March of 2015 they were granted 501c3 nonprofit status. And though their mission is unchanged, they’ve moved on to even more ambitious projects.
In the summer of 2015 they debuted a solar go-kart challenge. Prospective racers were given a kit that contained everything to build the karts, all they needed was the know-how. The karts are quite a marvel; the solar panel provides 1 horsepower, which means they’ll hit 16 mph running solely on sunshine. That first year three teams made the competition and raced round a one-mile, closed-course track running through the Boise State campus. For the next event, Schenker and Johnston are hoping to attract six teams. Eventually they hope to make it a regional competition, then take it national. Already one former Greenspeed club member is looking to start a program east of Boise in Pocatello.
“A project like this shows off the renewable energy source and also the STEM knowledge it takes to create the vehicle,” Johnston said. “It’s a technology demonstrator—it’s a way for the public to kick the tires.”
The next phase for Greenspeed Research involves a radical, custom-built, desert-chewing Trophy Truck. What’s a Trophy Truck? It’s like this. So essentially the same as running at Bonneville, except for far longer distances, with little in the way of support capabilities, competitors all around you, and all while avoiding the best bumps, dips, obstacles, and heat the desert can throw at you. In short, another great challenge for Greenspeed Research and a showcase for STEM disciplines. Oh, and it will be powered by biodiesel, of course.
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The project is moving along quickly; the welded-steel chassis is complete (and a thing of beauty), and the engine is waiting to be installed. Greenspeed Research certainly has the knowledge and the expertise to run with—and pass—the competition, but they’ll still need help. Parts are expensive, support crews are expensive, tires, transportation, food, lodging, professional drivers—it all adds up. To get there, they’ll need sponsors. They’ve had good luck so far, with donations from numerous parts manufacturers. For the manufacturers, the project is a no-brainer.
“These companies can see this isn’t just a couple guys going out racing on the weekend to have some fun,” Schenker said. “It’s about giving back to the community. We send them pictures of what we’re doing, and then they can show their customers they’re doing something good.
Hydrogen, diesel, biodiesel, electricity—what will power the vehicles of the future?
Mention electric vehicles (EVs), and Schenker and Johnston both nod their heads. “Electric will likely be the end result,” says Schenker, “but there’s a long way to get there, especially as far as building out the infrastructure.”
But Biodiesel is also completely viable. It’s powered the Chevy across the salt flats and will soon push the Trophy Truck through the desert. It’s available at the pump right now and can be used to power trains, buses, trucks—all things that move a lot of people and a lot of freight. Even the U.S. Navy is using it to power helicopters, which are very susceptible to malfunction. So what’s the holdup?
“Biodiesel can easily approach a net-neutral carbon footprint,” says Schenker, “but there’s nobody like [Tesla’s] Elon Musk pushing it.”
Again, this is where Greenspeed Research helps fill that void. The motorsports angle is exciting and sexy, but in the end it’s really only a vehicle to help spread the word.
“For our projects we look at any renewable energy source—biodiesel, solar, vegetable oil,” Schenker said. “These are things that you can grow or use to help capture waste energy.”
For Schenker and Johnston, the Trophy Truck is the showcase for renewable energy, and STEM is the driver that help makes the world a better place.
“We don’t want to be just pushing out facts about renewable energy,” Johnston said. “It tends to bore people. It bores us! Our work allows us to say ‘this is what we did, this is how we did it—judge for yourself.’”
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