A Formula for Science

formula one carI’m not a huge fan of automobile racing, but I do admit to catching a bit of the fever when the Formula One cars roll into town. There is something captivating about these machines, capable of attaining speeds well over 300 km/hr, as they push technology, engineering and driving skills to the limit. This is not a cheap sport. The budget for a Formula One team can run upwards of $120 million a year! Just the tires cost a couple of thousand for a set, and they only last for half a race. Of course these are not ordinary tires. They are made from a variety of specialized rubber compounds that can provide tremendous gripping power, the choice of specific tire being determined by weather conditions. The tires grip better as temperature increases and sometimes pre-heating is required.

There seems to be some confusion about what “Formula One” means. It does not refer to the fuel that is used. But the composition of the fuel is part of the “formula,” which actually refers to the set of regulations that define every aspect of the car as well as how the race is to be run. Perhaps surprisingly, the fuel used is regular gasoline. According to Formula 1 stipulation, it cannot contain any component that is not available in commercial gasoline, but the exact composition can vary subject to strictly defined limits.

As in any sport, cheating is always a possibility and Formula One automobile racing is no exception. In this case, though, it is not only the drivers who have to provide samples to be tested for doping, but their cars as well in the form of gasoline. Contrary to common belief, gasoline is not a single chemical entity, rather it is a complex mixture of compounds derived mostly from petroleum, with smaller amounts of “biofuels” such as ethanol, produced through the fermentation of sugars. There are also various oxygen containing additives designed to boost performance and detergents such as alkylamines and alkyl phosphates to protect the engine from the buildup of sludge.

The first stage of gasoline production begins with distillation of petroleum to capture compounds within a boiling point range that encompasses those having from four to twelve carbon atoms per molecule. Alternatively, higher boiling fractions can be subjected to “catalytic cracking,” causing larger molecules to break down to smaller ones typically found in gasoline.

In an internal combustion engine organic compounds burn to yield carbon dioxide and water vapour, the gases that create the pressure needed to drive the pistons. In reality, combustion is never complete and sometimes the unburned hydrocarbons can autoignite and cause the engine to “knock,” resulting in reduced efficiency. One way to counter this problem is through the edition of lead compounds, a practice that has been phased out because of the metal’s toxicity.

An alternate approach is to reformulate the gasoline by using specific catalysts to rearrange the atoms in some of the molecules to form compounds that burn more efficiently. Benzene, for example, belongs to a family of compounds known as “aromatics” and burns very well, but it is carcinogenic and the amount allowed in gasoline is limited. There is also the possibility of adding compounds from other sources to improve combustion. Ethanol, methanol, methyl-t-butyl ether (MTBE) and ethyl-t-butyl ether (ETBE) are some examples that enhance the efficiency of combustion because of their oxygen content. Ethanol has the added benefit of being made by fermentation of sugars from renewable resources such as corn. Obviously because of the number of compounds possibly present, the variety of blends of gasoline is practically infinite.

In the case of F1 fuel, the composition must comply with strictly defined specifications. The amount of aromatics, olefins (molecules with carbon-carbon double bonds) and compounds containing oxygen are all regulated. There is even a stipulation that a minimum 5.75% of the components must come from a biological source, in other words, not petroleum. Even though the characteristics of the fuel must conform to stringent guidelines, there is still enough maneuvering in exact composition to make a significant difference when it comes to racing.

Before a race each team must provide a sample of the fuel to be used to the sport’s governing body, the International Sports Car Federation (FIA), for analysis by an instrumental technique known as gas chromatography. Another sample, taken at the event also has to be submitted. Each sample is injected into the gas chromatograph with a syringe and is immediately heated and vapourized. An inert carrier gas, usually helium, then pushes the vapours into a column filled with a packing material to which components of the mixture bind to different extents, meaning that they emerge from the column at different times. These “retention” times are characteristic of each component. The exiting gases are electronically detected and translated into a series of peaks on a chart paper with the number of peaks representing the number of compounds detected, and the areas underneath the peaks being proportional to the relative amounts of each component. This output is then compared with one generated by a standard sample of a reference fuel and if the variation is greater than specified by the rules, the fuel is deemed incompliant, and the car may be disqualified.

Chemical manipulation of the drivers can of course also make a difference. Driving one of these machines that pushes technology to the limit is physically and mentally demanding. FIA adheres to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s protocols and drivers are often tested during race weekends. But they may also be subjected to unscheduled tests outside of competitions to ensure they are not using drugs such as steroids to strengthen their muscles, or other performance enhancers. Transgressions are rare.

In case you think F1 racing is a total waste of money, well, not total. The technology developed has resulted in some useful spin-offs ranging from magnetic filters to remove rust from home heating systems to slip-resistant footwear. The telemetry systems that monitor 150,000 measurements a second from over 200 sensors on an F1 car have been adapted to telemetry systems that help researchers monitor a variety of body functions in subjects taking part in clinical trials. Sometimes Formula One is a formula for scientific advancement. Now, if only they could do something about the noise….


Joe Schwarcz

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