Teachers of the Trade

FROM THE APRIL ISSUE: An American Ethanol partnership facilitated an ethanol-focused presentation to future and current mechanics at one Universal Technical Institute campus.
By Lisa Gibson | March 18, 2019

Mechanic certification focuses intensely on engines themselves, and the mechanical aspects of engine parts. It makes sense, then, that mechanics are just as susceptible to believing myths surrounding ethanol as consumers are.

Andy Randolph, technical director for ECR Engines, says the Automotive Service Excellence outline for curriculum at tech schools doesn’t include fuels and their impacts on engines. “It’s not a question on the exam. It’s not really a part of the curriculum. It’s kind of surprising, but it’s an area that burgeoning mechanics aren’t exposed to.”

Randolph speculates that fuel impacts aren’t included in the curriculum because E10 is “the fuel.” There aren’t options, he says. “So the fuel is kind of a given and it’s not something they talk to mechanics about.”

But fuel options will change with a wider adoption of E15. “So, now, getting into the realm of E15 and, hopefully, as time goes on, getting more choices that are higher ethanol blends than that, it’s really incumbent on mechanics to help educate consumers on what the differences of these various ethanol concentrations are.”

And Randolph is already getting started on educating mechanics. In November, Randolph, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, spoke to a group of 300 students and instructors at the Universal Technical Institute’s NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina. His presentation was part of an initiative by American Ethanol, Growth Energy’s racing arm, to clear up ethanol myths among automotive professionals.

“When it comes to fuel, which is a critical component of the engine, there’s a big knowledge drop-off,” says Austin Dabney, senior manager of communications for Growth Energy. “When there’s an information gap, that can get filled with negative misinformation and we’ve seen that to be true.”

Randolph adds, “If you have conflicting statements from two people, you need to choose which one to believe. The professionalism of our approach, and the information that we have is not only factually accurate, but it’s also very convincing.”

Natural Partners
The idea came together through UTI’s and American Ethanol’s mutual partner, NASCAR. American Ethanol saw the opportunity to get in front of hundreds of students training to become mechanics. Randolph has worked closely with Richard Childress Racing, which is a partner of American Ethanol, putting him in a perfect position to speak to students. That way, it comes right from “the horse’s mouth,” not from an ethanol trade group, Dabney says. “UTI wants to make sure the message is from relevant people; from people these students are aspiring to be,” he says.

One year into the partnership between American Ethanol and UTI, American Ethanol has completely revamped the Mooresville campus’ resource center—now named the American Ethanol Learning Resource Center—and has the school’s instructors and students thinking more deeply about ethanol in engines.

The students were engaged, and asked Randolph highly intelligent, well-informed questions, Dabney says. “It was a really impressive group of young people.” The campus visit with Randolph was an all-around positive experience, Dabney says. “We left extraordinarily impressed by the type of graduates that are leaving that organization.”

The students chosen for the presentation were in NASCAR-specific programs, or fuel and ignitions courses, all well into their programs, says Tony Frassetto, senior account manager in business alliances for UTI. “We were thoughtful and strategic in how we pulled these classes for Dr. Andy,” he says.

Specifically of interest to students is Randolph’s demonstration comparing alcohol-blended fuel to gasoline. “Alcohol-gas blends are very different from a combustion standpoint,” Randolph says. Gasoline contains no oxygen, so it must come from the air. The fuel and air then burn on different sides of the flame. Ethanol, however, contains oxygen, creating a much different burn. “When you see the two of them burn, all of a sudden, it becomes so obvious how the properties of ethanol are beneficial for emissions,” Randolph says. “It becomes so vivid when you can see it with your own eyes.
“When you’ve got facts on your side, it makes it a lot more fun,” Randolph laughs. 

The partnership with American Ethanol also helps UTI stay on the cutting edge of its training. “The landscape is consistently changing, with alternative fuels, and it’s important for our students to go into the workplace, go into the field, and know the facts about what’s out there,” Frassetto says.

Educating Educators
While the information Randolph shared at UTI quickly won over the students, a candid lunch meeting with instructors was more contentious, Randolph says. “We had some really good discussions that cleared up some things and also got them thinking in the right direction,” he says. “I think talking to both the students and the educators was very valuable.”

Frassetto says the lunch with instructors allowed Randolph to clear up several deeply held beliefs about ethanol’s impact on engines. “It was really interesting to watch that interaction between all of our instructors and Dr. Andy,” Frassetto says. “All of our instructors, they’ve been there, done that. They come from the field, so they come with their preconceived thoughts about ethanol. And it was great to hear them willing to take in new information.”

While a system-wide curriculum change is an enormous undertaking, instructors asked Randolph for more information and are actively reviewing it with much interest, Frassetto says.
“We’re training tomorrow’s technicians, so we need these students to be knowledgeable,” Frassetto says. “But the instructors are just as important because they’re talking to students on a daily basis.
“He impacted them,” Frassetto says of the instructors who met with Randolph. “He changed some of their perspectives and they’re truly the influencers, I think, of tomorrow’s technicians.”

Pilot Program
Dabney says the partnership with UTI in Mooresville is a pilot project that hopefully will grow. Randolph, Dabney and Frassetto say they’d like to see the ethanol talks expand to all campuses.
“UTI has campuses all over the country,” Randolph says. “It’s certainly my hope that this is something we can take onto the road, virtually annually, and visit all these campuses. … Just through UTI alone, we could reach more than 1,000 graduating mechanics. You can imagine, over not very long a time, that’s going to have a huge influence on the pool of people that’s out there.”

Dabney says he hopes all of American Ethanol’s partners will be plugged into the UTI training partnership. “The idea is we want to position our various people that we work with under the American Ethanol umbrella as educators and validators for the performance benefits of biofuels,” he says. American Ethanol is seeking out other automotive thought leaders to engage them in partnerships. “It’s a sweeping effort and we’re trying to find as many touch points as we can that make sense.”

Randolph also is working with ASE to deliver a webinar to even more auto mechanics in the field.
“We know there are technicians all over the country,” Dabney says. “We know the oil industry has done a great job of putting doubt in people’s minds, and mechanics and technicians are who consumers go to and trust. The average person relies on those people to give them information. We can’t have misinformation being given out on ethanol.”

“Across the country, we have the ability to train over 15,000 technicians each day” Frassetto says. “This is just the start of something.”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine