Methanol Marathon

The U.S. Department of Energy got 200 eager engineering students and their faculty advisors to spend two years trying to optimize the use of M85 in a production vehicle. The students were expecting a conversion and rally, and they took part in an once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The students also enhanced their chances of finding a job in the automobile business.  Their future employers will benefit from the experience the students acquired.

Thirteen schools took advantage of methanol’s high octane and raised the compression ratio to improve fuel economy and power. The compression ratios ranged from Michigan Tech’s conservative 10.5:1, to Penn State’s aggressive 14:1. This competition resulted in several creative innovations, such as high-tech ignition systems, reverse flow cooling systems, complex turbochargers, and fuel atomizers.


  • The University of Tennessee, Knoxville had the highest fuel economy at 37 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (mpgge).
  • Concordia University had a 0-500 feet time of 8.07 seconds.
  • Because they turbocharged their engines, Tennessee and Concordia maintained the production 8.9:1 compression ratio.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology increased the compression ratio, modified the cam profile to increase the flow through the valve, and added an ultrasonic vaporizing system and a high energy ignition deal with cold starts.
  • Trying to get the best of both worlds, Maryland used a 13.25:1 ratio to improve road-load fuel economy and a large, low-boost turbocharger to increase full-load power. They also won the Road Rally Event.
  • Texas Tech University had a dual exhaust system and used a conventional exhaust manifold stove to heat the intake air after the engine was cold started.
  • West Virginia University tested cold starting and determined that an increase in cranking speed of 65 revolutions per minute improved the start time from 1.82 seconds to 0.52 seconds.
  • Penn State University provided resistive heating to the fuel injectors that aided vaporization on cold start-up.
  • Florida Institute of Technology students designed a system where only three of the six cylinders fired during light-load operation.
  • Colorado State’s vehicle had the most innovative M85 concept and for extremely low temperature starting, their vehicle generated dimethyl ether (DME) from the M85 fuel.
  • Washington University installed a supplemental intake air preheated and a multiple spark-ignition system to improve cold starts.
  • New York Institute of Technology use a multi-port simultaneous double-fire fuel injector and a high energy multiple spark capacitive discharge ignition to improve the cold start of the vehicle.
  • The first full emissions tests were held during the second year at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • A gasoline powered control vehicle was used for comparison purposes. This gave the student vehicles a benchmark to which they could compare their performances.
  • A surprising accomplishment was that most cars had very low emissions; even though most schools had no emission testing facilities anywhere near them. The best student vehicle got 20% higher mpgge than the gasoline control vehicle at 55 mph.