It stands to reason that Formula E, the world’s only open wheel racing series that uses electric race cars, would want the electricity that charges the batteries in those cars to be as green as possible. Oddly enough, Formula E uses two large diesel generators mounted in a shipping container for easy portability for that purpose. Huh? Formula E cars are charged by diesels? How does that compute?

Formula E uses glycerine diesel generators

Actually, it computes just fine because the diesels don’t run on fossil fuel or even bio-diesel. Instead, they run on glycerine, itself a by-product of bio-fuel production. Usually used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, it came to the attention of Paul Day, the CEO of Aquafuel Research Ltd, when supply began to exceed demand several years ago.

“If sustainability means anything, I think it means using any material to the best affect that you possibly can – if you want to want to eat pork sustainably, you’d better eat the whole pig – that’s really what we’re looking at,” he says. “So we started a research project with Greenergy into how you could use glycerine as an engine fuel. We had to do quite a lot of research work before we came up with the combustion cycle that meant you could burn glycerine in a diesel engine.”

“What we do is provide an electric power and distribution system in a very controlled way so that the [Formula E] cars can be charged in an hour in a very safe and reliable way that is fair to all the teams,” says Day. “The really beautiful thing about it is that we do that with our own patented renewable energy generators using a really clean fuel – clean in terms of carbon emissions and clean in terms of the local air quality, very low in NOx emissions, very low in particulate emissions – there’s no smoke.”

The generators are based on standard production diesel engine — the Cummins KTA50 — that has been adapted with Aquafuel’s patented technology to run on glycerine. “It is quite surprising how everything seems to be positive — its lubricity is much better than diesel, so all of the moving parts in the injection system are lubricated much better and they stay clean.” Day says. “Because you don’t produce any soot and particulates, the oil stays clean and because the exhaust is so clean, the catalysts for cleaning the emissions stay in really good condition and stay in their best operating zone the whole time as they never get clogged up. On top of all that, astonishingly, it’s more efficient than diesel is in the same engine.”


Some will say that the fossil fuels burned to get the Formula E teams from one race venue to another offsets any advantage gained from using glycerine as a fuel but Formula E really has gone to extraordinary lengths to minimize its carbon footprint. The Formula E calendar has been designed in cooperation with DHL to minimize the amount of air travel involved and use sea and road freight whenever possible.

“I think that in the same way that you have to invest some money financially, you have to invest some carbon in actually showing people and demonstrating that this stuff works,” he says. “We want to promote glycerine generators, we want this kind of technology to find its way to the rest of the world and find a way to reduce emissions. The same way that Formula E wants to show that these cars are amazing and that they have a great future and by doing that they can bridge the gap between where we are now and the electric car of the future.”

Another critique is that growing the plants used to make bio-fuels requires the use of arable land, which puts pressure on indigenous human food and water supplies. Not to worry, Day says. Within the next three to five years, the production of glycerine from salt water alga — a fully sustainable process –could be commercially viable.

“There are naturally occurring alga — Dunaliella salina — which grow in very salty conditions, for instance in solar salt production,” says Day. “There’s a group based at the University of Greenwich that are working on commercializing a whole bio-refinery based on this alga. It has a really holistic use. The beauty of it is that its cultivation is in saline places – not places where you are substituting fresh water supply. It’s not displacing crops and in fact the by-products are things that can be integrated into other agricultural eco-systems. We have high hopes for algae in future.”

How ironic would it be if the world’s first electric open wheel racing series provided the push diesel engines need to stay relevant in the world of transportation? Talk about your unintended consequences.

Source: Electric Cars Report   Photo credit: Formula E