What do Shell, NEED, the Indy Racing League, and Houston-area teachers all have in common? The need for speed! Thanks to Shell, over 80 teachers were able to experience the immense power of IndyCar racing and learn about the energy involved in the racing industry last month, while attending some of the events at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston.

Three areas that are very important in the racing industry are fuel, motors, and polymers, and teachers were presented with activities from all three areas. Upon arrival, teachers were encouraged to explore different activities from the Science of Energy, to get them thinking about transforming energy and how energy and racing are related.

After a welcome from Dr. Frazier Wilson of Shell, teachers were off and running with the science of racing. Teachers were first introduced to the basics of polymers made from petroleum products and their applications in the racing industry. They experimented with making two simple polymers and observing the absorbent properties of sodium polyacrylate, or “slush powder,” an absorbent material found in disposable diapers and used to rapidly absorb liquid spills. Some of the polymers highlighted in the racing industry were polycarbonate, used in helmet shields and the windshields of stock cars, and NOMEX, a fire-retardant material used to manufacture the fire suits worn by drivers and pit crew members.

Attending the Grand Prix

Next, teachers explored the properties and molecular structure of gasoline and ethanol, two fuels used in the racing industry. While Formula One and NASCAR primarily use gasoline, IndyCar racing uses ethanol, in an 85% ethanol / 15% gasoline blend called E85. Teachers were able to compare and contrast the properties of both fuels, and construct molecular models to understand the combustion of the fuels and the amount of energy and carbon dioxide each produces.

The morning concluded with activities exploring how electricity and magnetism form motors that are used to start engines. To save weight, racing vehicles do not have batteries or starters installed on them like passenger vehicles do. Instead, they are started with an external starting device that uses electricity and magnetism similarly to the way a motor uses them. Teachers built the Science of Electricity model found in the NEED hydropower curriculum and could see that turning the magnets inside a coil of wire induced electrical current in the wire using a digital multimeter.

After lunch, teachers, Shell sponsors, and NEED facilitators boarded buses to head to the Reliant Center to watch practice laps and a preliminary race among IRL drivers! The power of the vehicles was not necessarily easy to see, but the roar of the engines and the vibration in the bleachers and walkways demonstrated just how powerful these engines are as they topped speeds of 150 mph! Because it is a road course and not an oval, acceleration forces were in play the entire time, adding to the fantastic display of strength these vehicles and their drivers must possess.

Teachers also received the opportunity to tour the Shell event area, learning about advancements in fuel science, as well as racing science. Participants competed with each other, much like the drivers, in an engine building activity and trivia contests. Shell also had their chief scientist for mobility, Wolfgang Warnecke, on-site to meet some of the teachers and share with them about science in the industry.

NEED has been proud to partner with Shell to bring many energy workshops to teachers around the country, and we are glad to have been able to partner with them in this ground-breaking type of workshop. As NEED continues to evolve and expand into other areas of energy education, we hope to continue to partner with Shell to bring teachers lots of great opportunities to learn more about energy, and even the racing industry.

science of racing