Winning $5 Million with E85

The Edison2 team abandoned electric car technology to meet the requirements of the X Prize with a super light, super efficient E85-optimized car—and won.
By Holly Jessen | January 14, 2011

It all started when Oliver Kuttner heard about the X Prize competition to create a car with a fuel economy of at least 100 miles per gallon equivalent (mpge). Following U.S. government standards, mpge measures the distance traveled per unit of energy consumption, comparing a gallon of gas to the energy content in E85, diesel or electric power. Kuttner, a real estate redeveloper in Virginia involved in sports car racing his whole life, thought “I could win that.”

The first X Prize competition to target automotive innovation began in 2008, according to the X Prize Foundation, an educational nonprofit prize organization. Over the next 30 months, 111 competing teams with 136 vehicle entries worked to develop safe and super fuel-efficient vehicles, angling for a piece of the $10 million prize money in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition.

Kuttner’s team assumed at first that success would come with an electric car or a hybrid. When they started preparing for the competition, they named the team the Edison2, in honor of Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the electric light. In the end, the team got top honors, winning the mainstream class—but not with the help of electricity. The winning vehicle was an E85-powered car with a 250 cc one-cylinder internal combustion engine. The two other alternative class winners, which won $2.5 million each, were both battery-operated electric vehicles.

There were many requirements to win the X Prize mainstream class, spokesman David Brown says. The vehicle had to have a fuel economy of at least 100 mpge and a 200-mile range. It also had to hold four people, pass various safety tests and emissions requirements and go from zero to 60 mph in under 15 seconds, among other things.

The Edison2 team entered four cars into the three classes of the X Prize competition—one car each into the two alternative classes and two cars into the mainstream class. “This is a racing-based team,” Brown says. “Racing teams never go in a race with only one car.” 
By the finals round, only two cars had qualified to go on in the mainstream class. Both came from the Edison2 team. “In terms of the main prize we were the only ones that actually made it to the final round,” he says, “which pointed out significantly the limits of electric cars.”

By the end of the competition in September, the Edison2 Very Light Car # 98 took top honors—and $5 million in prize money. The car had a fuel economy of 102.5 miles mpge, for combined city and highway driving, and weighed only 830 pounds.

A Winning Strategy

E85 was a smart choice for the team for a variety of reasons, Brown says. The fuel helped the team meet and exceed the 200-mile range requirement, something an electric vehicle would have difficulty with. “The two key virtues of auto efficiency are low-weight and low-aerodynamic drag, and it just doesn’t make sense to put hundreds of pounds of batteries into a car striving for peak efficiency,” he says.

The team decided to focus on making the car as light as possible, and that meant using a conventional internal combustion engine. “Ethanol was a key ingredient to optimizing that,” he said.

E85, a very high-octane fuel, is very tolerant of recirculation, explains Ron Mathis, chief of design for the team. Recirculation isn’t a new technique—it’s used routinely on modern cars. “We took exhaust gas recirculation to a new extreme and that’s something that’s only realistically possible with ethanol fuel,” he says.

As a conventional engine reaches cruising speeds, it throttles back because it doesn’t need as much energy as when it was accelerating, Brown says. Throttling prevents air from getting into the cylinder while the cylinder is still trying to pull air in. This causes an inefficiency called pumping loss. The fix was extensive exhaust gas recirculation to decrease power by reducing the charge in the cylinder. This is a solution that works with E85 because ethanol doesn’t misfire with a charge dilution, he says. In the end, the winning X Prize vehicle had a very high performing engine with a 15-1 compression ratio, again, something that was possible due to ethanol.

In addition, E85 gave the Edison2 team an edge in the arena of mpge. The competition used the same metric used by the U.S. DOE to compare the energy content of electric power, E85 and diesel to the energy in a gallon of gasoline. Brown says. For electric power, 33 kilowatt hours of electricity equals one gallon of gas. Diesel fuel, however, has greater energy content than gas, so a competitor using diesel would be allowed less than a gallon of fuel. E85 has slightly less energy content than gas so the Edison2 team was allowed to use roughly 1.4 gallons of E85 to equal the same amount of energy as one gallon of gas, says Brad Jaeger, an Edison2 engineer and one of the drivers in the X Prize competition. The standard energy content of gas was set at 115,400 Btu for the X Prize but, because gas from the pump varies, the fuel used for the competition was tested by a lab to determine the exact energy content. “Due to this variance, the exact amount of E85 to equal one gallon of gas changed slightly, but was always around 1.4 gallons,” Jaeger says.

Testing for mpge on the track simulated city, urban and highway driving cycles, adding starts, stops and different speeds on the track, as specified by EPA standards, Jaeger says. The Edison2 car achieved 129 mpge in the highway cycle. Overall, it had 102.5 mpge when the combined cycle on-track testing was averaged with the combined cycle validation testing performed in a lab with a dynamometer.

Burning E85 also helped the team meet emissions ratings. Most people would consider an all-electric vehicle an extremely clean car—it doesn’t even have a tailpipe. However, electric vehicles do have upstream emissions, depending on the source of the electricity, which in the U.S. is usually coal. This was calculated using Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) Model. “Using that comparison we had the lowest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the lowest carbon emissions in the X Prize competition,” Brown says.

Although the Edison2 team was pleased with what it achieved with E85, that’s not what won the competition. In fact, with what they learned about creating a super efficient engine, they believe they could succeed with another drive, even an electric vehicle. “The secret of our success was not the engine,” Brown says. “The secret of our success was the platform, creating a car of unprecedented efficiency. It just takes very little energy to push this car.”

Related to that is the fact that the winning vehicle had the lowest drag coefficient of any four-wheeled car tested in the GM wind tunnel and at the Chrysler Proving Grounds. It has half the drag of Prius, a full-hybrid, electric mid-sized car, commonly thought of as a very efficient car, Mathis says. It has one quarter of the drag of an Escalade, a full-size luxury sport utility vehicle. “We flit through the wind,” he explains, “These cars are just breathtakingly efficient.”

The Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car that went on sale in December, could not win the X Prize, he points out. For comparison, it has a range of only 73 miles per charge (based on the U.S. EPA city cycle), weighs 3,500 pounds and has a 99 mpge for combined city/highway driving. “At the end of the day, no matter what else you do, you still have to push 3,500 pounds,” Brown says, “and it takes a certain amount of energy to push a car that weighs that much and on top of that, has mediocre aerodynamics.”

The way Mathis looks at it, an extremely efficient car answers critics who use the food versus fuel argument against ethanol. By creating a car that is so efficient and so light, that it only burns a small amount of energy to make it move, that argument falls flat. “What we are doing here tends to remove an objection to biofuels,” he says, “How valid you think that objection is depends on your political colors and we don’t want to get into that. But it does tend to remove that objection.”

What’s Next?

The team is now working to transform the competition prototype into something that is more user-friendly for consumers. “[We are working to make] it something that people can look at and imagine taking their kids to soccer practice in,” he says.

The decision on whether the next car will run on E85 has not been made yet. It could be E85, diesel, gas or electric. “At this point we’re focusing on the car’s design and not the powertrain,” he says.

The idea is to come up with concepts that car manufacturers can incorporate into the design of cars the average person would buy, Mathis says. The project the team is working on today could mean big changes to how cars are built and profoundly affect the ordinary car buyer in the near future. “We are trying really hard to open up a whole new market in cars,” he says.

The team will work for the next few years to prove that a very light car can be safe, Brown says. Designed with the same principles that allow a race car driver to walk away from a crash, the cars designed by the Edison2 team have an internal cage structure to protect the occupants. In addition, the vehicle is shaped like a diamond, meaning very few impacts will be direct, as is the case with a traditional rectangle-shaped car. Finally, the wheels are set outside the body of the car, allowing for collapsible space in the event of a crash.

While the $5 million prize was a triumph for the team, it’s far from enough to accomplish its goals, he says. The team worked for two years to prepare four vehicles for the competition and will work for several more to come up with designs to bring to car manufacturers. Edison2 will work together with a combination of private investment, corporate partnerships and government grants to achieve its goals. “We actually think the car we designed, even though it won us $5 million dollars, is obsolete already,” he says. “We’re beyond it. We’re working on the next designs.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 738-4946
hjessen@bbiinternational.com