There is no Nobel Prize for engineering. The closest thing to it is the Charles Stark Draper Prize awarded by the US National Academy of Engineering. While not as famous as the Nobel, the Draper is still rather prestigious, and comes with a $500,000 check. Those so honored have included the inventors of the turbojet, the integrated circuit, and the Internet—and collectively represent a roll call of the creators of the modern technological age. No woman has ever won it. There is, however, one who should have.
Her name was Roberta Nichols. Born in 1931, her dad was an engineer at Douglas Aircraft, and, despite the near total exclusion of girls from engineering schools in her day, she saw no reason why she couldn't become one as well. Working with her father, she repaired vintage automobiles, and built and piloted racing cars and boats. During one race on the Bonneville Salt Flats, she took her souped-up 1929 Ford Model A to over 190 mph. On another occasion, she raced her drag boat, the Witch (whose engine she had converted to run on methanol), to 131 mph, setting a world speed record that stood for three years. "I just grew up not knowing that girls weren't supposed to like to do those kinds of things," she said, many years later. So she became an engineer, and a very good one, too. Her passion was the internal combustion engine, and after a pause to have and raise children, her career advanced rapidly. She broke the glass ceiling. By the late 1970s, she was leading the research in alternative fuel vehicles at Ford.
The time was certainly right for a talented inventor of alternative fuel cars. The nation had received a massive blow from the first Arab oil embargo, and was about to receive a second shock following the Islamist revolution in Iran. During the 1970s, numerous committees of the Department of Energy, the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other august advisory bodies had met, conferred, and issued reports, all converging on the view that America needed an alternative to foreign oil—and that methanol could well be the best answer. The environmental movement also was on the rise, adding new force to the issue of air pollution, particularly in Southern California, where this always palpable problem was becoming ever more urgent. Again, methanol vehicles appeared to be a solution.
Nichols had grown up in Los Angeles, graduating with a bachelor's degree in physics from University of California at Los Angeles, and then obtained advanced degrees in environmental engineering from University of Southern California. She had played a formative role in launching the California Energy Commission (CEC), and had many friends among the environmentalists who ran it after her departure for Ford. Working together with these contacts, she seized the moment and sold the state government on the idea of launching a major program to prove the practicality of methanol-powered automobiles. Then she went back to Ford and fought an internal campaign to get the company to partner on the project. To prove that methanol cars would work, she singlehandedly converted a Ford Pinto to methanol. Overcoming significant bureaucratic opposition, she got her way.
The experiment began in 1980, with Ford supplying twelve specially designed methanol-fueled Pintos to the state, then it picked up steam over the next several years. By 1983 California had more than 600 methanol-fueled cars operating, including an impressive fleet of 561 Ford Escorts.
The methanol vehicles were a great technical success. Methanol is 105-octane fuel, and its use in pure form in the California state fleet cars increased their effective horsepower by 20 percent. As Nichols recalled in one of her last papers, "[T]he drivers loved the performance."1 With a compression ratio of 11.8:1, fuel efficiency was increased by 15 percent. The cars were calibrated to achieve an advanced emission standard, including 0.4 nitrogen oxide (NOx), which at that time gasoline-powered cars were unable to meet. The methanol cars met that standard when new, and not only that, they still met it with no deterioration whatsoever after 50,000 miles of use. Overall, the methanol fleet racked up some 35 million miles of real-world travel, and came through with flying colors. Indeed, by 1990, after seven years of use and abuse, more than 90 percent of the original methanol Escorts were still running strong.
There was, however, a problem. Methanol only contains about half the energy per gallon of gasoline, so even though the methanol engines were 15 percent more efficient in utilizing this energy, distance traveled per gallon was only about 57 percent of that attainable with gasoline. Ford tried to compensate for this by increasing the size of the fuel tank, but there were limits to how much capacity they could add given the fact that they were retrofitting an existing gasoline automobile model. As a result, the methanol Escorts could travel only about 230 miles before refueling. Such a range limit would only be a minor inconvenience for a gasoline vehicle, because there are gasoline stations everywhere. But California had only established twenty-two methanol refueling stations statewide. As Nichols put it: "It was clear that this number of stations was totally inadequate for the drivers of these vehicles to feel comfortable. They had to constantly monitor the fuel gauge and carefully plan their routes."2 Furthermore, with only six hundred methanol cars operating in a state with more than 10 million gas-fueled vehicles, a private gas station owner would have to be insane to waste one of his pumps on the methanol market. In short, there weren't enough methanol stations to induce anyone other than the California Energy Commission to buy a methanol car, and until and unless there were a million or more methanol vehicles on the road, that would remain the case indefinitely. This chicken-and-egg problem was a showstopper. The methanol car might be a complete technical success, but unless something was done, it would also be a technological dead end.
In retrospect, the need for operational infrastructure to support the methanol vehicles may seem obvious, but engineers like to think about how to make machines work, and the environmentalists wanted to see a car that wouldn't pollute, so for the CEC/Ford team achieving technical success with the cars themselves must have seemed like the first priority. But having accomplished that, they were shoved face to face with the brutal reality that for a new technology to make its way into the world, intrinsic merit is not enough. In engineering, as in politics, nothing is so difficult or so perilous as the creation of a new order, and at birth, an infant invention that hopes to do so is confronted by a technical and economic reality that has been shaped not by its own needs, but by those it aims to usurp. Before the new technology can become strong enough to make the world of its desires, it must live and grow to power within the world as it is. The methanol cars might be a driver's delight, but unless they could function in a world without methanol stations, they would forever remain a footnote: just one more curious hobbyhorse technical demonstration instigated and toyed with for a little while by eccentric bureaucrats and playful engineers with other peoples' money to spend and nothing better to do with their time. That was not the fate Nichols intended for her project.
There was only one answer. If they were ever to make their way into the economy in numbers big enough to make a real difference to either energy independence or the environment, the methanol cars would also have to be able to run on gasoline.
Now, the technical issues associated with building methanol-only cars are not particularly great. Methanol is more corrosive than gasoline, so superior-quality materials need to be used in the fuel line. A methanol engine burns with more fuel and less air than gasoline, and so the fuel and air inputs for the engine need to be set accordingly.
Methanol is a bit harder to ignite than gasoline, but burns cooler and cleaner, and its high octane offers the opportunity to achieve an increased compression ratio, higher fuel efficiency, and better vehicle performance. These considerations variously complicate and ease the designer's task, but at the end of the day, an engineering team attempting to develop a methanol-only automobile is faced with a technical challenge roughly equivalent to that involved in creating a good gasoline-driven vehicle. In fact, in the 1960s many drivers, including Nichols, had independently converted their racing cars to methanol, preferring it for its safety advantages and higher octane. As we have seen, Nichols's alternate-fuel vehicle team at Ford had no difficulty solving such straightforward matters for heavy-use commuter cars as well, and the all-methanol vehicles they shipped to the CEC program during the early 1980s worked just fine.
Creating a mixed-fuel car, however, is another question altogether. Again, it would not be a particularly difficult challenge if the designer could be informed in advance that the car would run on some specified mixture, say, 40 percent methanol, 60 percent gasoline (M40), or whatever. But for a methanol/gasoline car to do what the Nichols team now realized it really needed to do, it would have to be able to run not on one specified fuel mixture, but on any arbitrary mixture. A car might start out the day with a full tank of methanol (Ml00), and then fill up with gasoline when the tank was three-quarters empty. From that point on, it would be running on M25, until such time as it refueled again, at which time its fuel mixture would change unpredictably to something else. The challenge was baffling. How can one possibly design an automobile engine to work well without knowing what fuel it is going to use? The only way to do it would be to have an engine that could actively change its behavior in immediate response to the quality of its fuel. But how?
An opening was provided by the Dutch inventor G. A. Schwippert, who in 1984 patented an optical sensor that could determine the alcohol content of a methanol/gasoline mixture by measuring the fluid's index of refraction (light-bending properties). Making use of this device and the new technology of electronic fuel injection then coming into general use, Nichols and her Ford engineering team collaborators Richard Wineland and Eric Clinton devised a scheme whereby a Schwippert sensor would be used to assess the alcohol content of the fuel in real time as it was being fed to the engine. The computer that controlled the car's electronic fuel injector (EFI) would then interpolate proportionately between the desired air/fuel ratios of pure methanol and pure gasoline to determine the correct air/fuel ratio for the mixture of the moment. This done, the computer would give the EFI its instructions for the right amount of fuel to feed to the engine. No matter what the fuel mixture might be, the EFI would always know how much to pump to make the engine operate correctly.
This design concept was laid out by Nichols, Wineland, and Clinton in the historic US patent 4,706,629, "Control system for engine operation using two fuels of different volumetric energy content,"3 filed in February 1986. Together with their two other patented inventions covering the issues of spark ignition timing4 and differential fuel volatility,5 it represented the first complete practical system to enable an automobile to run omnivorously on any mixture of alcohol and gasoline.
It was a breakthrough. Nichols, Wineland, and Clinton had invented the flex-fuel car.
Nichols lost no time in putting her team's invention into practice. In 1986, even before the ink on the patent applications was really dry, she rushed an experimental methanol/gasoline flex-fuel Ford Escort to the California Energy Commission for field testing. The next year she followed with 7 methanol/ethanol/gasoline flex-fuel Ford Crown Victorias, and in 1989 she sent 183 more. This was just the beginning. The flex-fuel cars were so successful that in the early 1990s Nichols was able to get Ford to launch a full-production run, and some 8,000 methanol/gasoline flex-fuel Ford Tauruses were shipped to the state. Most significantly, for the first time, many of the cars were bought by the general public.
Realizing that something important was going on, the other auto manufacturers finally roused themselves and created their own flex-fuel concepts. By the end of the 1990s, General Motors had shipped the CEC 1,512 methanol/gasoline flex-fuel vehicles; Chrysler, 4,730; Volkswagen, 53; Nissan, 17; Toyota, 8; and Mercedes-Benz, 5.
The cars worked well. As the CEC's Tom MacDonald reported in a summary paper on the program published in 2000,6 the more than fourteen thousand methanol/gasoline flex-fuel vehicles involved demonstrated "seamless vehicle operation on methanol, gasoline, and all combination of these fuels." Other conclusions from the CEC's massive field trial included "FFV engine durability can be expected to match that of standard gasoline vehicles An incremental improvement in FFV emissions was observed. . .. An incremental fuel efficiency is achieved using methanol. . . . Health and safety related issues that had undergone long examination and debate with respect to methanol proved largely insignificant in the expanded FFV fleet
demonstrations, with few, if any, reported incidents attributable to methanol use."
Times change and priorities alter. During the 1990s, with the price of oil hovering at low levels, both the nation and the CEC lost focus on the goal of energy independence, and, with it, on methanol. Interest in flex-fuel cars, however, was maintained by the farm lobby, which saw in them a means to expand ethanol sales. Thus, for the past decade or so, flex-fuel vehicles have been designed primarily for ethanol use. The technology has changed as well. Instead of using the early Nichols-Wineland-Clinton FFV approach of sensing the fuel content prior to injection, nearly all flex-fuel cars today use a method based on sensing the content of the exhaust. This is a better approach because it is not only cheaper, but more versatile. An optical sensor can't really tell which alcohol is mixed with the gasoline, and so it would have a hard time dealing with a situation where the type of alcohol used is unknown. In contrast, a system based on a sensor that sniffs the car's exhaust doesn't need to know what the fuel is at all. It simply assesses whether the engine is running lean or rich, and instructs the EFI to add fuel or air accordingly. Thus, while the current production models of FFVs are certified only for ethanol/gasoline mixtures, they can actually run on methanol/gasoline or methanol/ethanol/gasoline mixes as well. Because of the simplified system, there is almost no price differential between flex-fuel cars and their gasoline-only counterparts. As of this writing, about 6 million have been sold. That's still not enough to make any difference for energy independence, but it's enough to show the way.
Roberta Nichols died of leukemia in 2005, her dream still unachieved, but perhaps, for someone with vision as far-seeing as hers, finally in sight. Looking at it in many ways, one cannot help but admire her life and her accomplishment. Personally, however, I find especially delightful the historical irony that fundamentalist Islam, which detests uppity women, nonconformists, innovators, and liquor, should ultimately face its comeuppance from the brainchild of a gutsy, mold-breaking inventress with unshakeable faith in the power of alcohol.
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