A lot of NASA HPDE drivers drive their cars to and from the track, and of those, there’s probably a decent amount who change their engine settings between the street and track, particularly those with boosted applications.
Cars that can be switched between maps for street and track driving often benefit from increased octane fuel, but race fuel is expensive, often incompatible with emissions control equipment, and octane boosters haven’t always been up to the task of getting octane ratings greater than 100. To find out more about how octane boosters work and to learn the current state of the art, we caught up with Ian Lehn president of Boostane Octane Engineering.
Lehn said there are lots of ways to boost octane in a fuel. In fact, some of them can be found in your local hardware store. Historically, manufacturers have increased octane in a few different ways: lead, Ferrocene and ethanol.
Tetra-ethyl was developed in 1922 and has been used as an octane booster ever since. Piston-engine airplanes that flew at high altitude thrived on it. But it’s lead. It’s toxic. Just ask the people of Flint, Mich. One drop of tetra-ethyl lead in an open cut and it’s lights out for you.
“You add lead, you’re going to add octane. That’s the old-fashioned way. Some race fuels still do it that way,” Lehn said. “Back in the day, it was Tetra-ethyl lead and it was beautiful. It shot holes in the ozone and it wasn’t good to get on you but the fact of the matter is it added lubrication and it increased octane.”
Lead won’t work with modern emissions control equipment.
Some countries with lesser developed fuel infrastructures use Ferrocene, which contains iron that can oxygenate and cause corrosion.
Another way you can get big octane numbers is by using E85 ethanol, but that can create problems of its own. For example, E85 often requires replacing fuel system components. E85 also is hydroscopic, which means it readily absorbs water, and even though E85 costs less than race fuel or even pump gas with an octane boosting additive, it contains about 30 percent fewer BTUs, so consumption rises commensurately.
When Lehn and Boostane’s business development manager Anthony Caputo were in college at Georgia Tech, the two were racing offshore powerboats. One of the challenges was finding fuel with enough octane for the twin supercharged big-block Chevrolet engines in their 46-foot catamaran. They also had to deal with transporting race fuel in 55-gallon drums and getting them down to the dock to refuel the boat.
For their senior exit thesis, Lehn, who was an engineering major, used the labs he had access to at Georgia Tech to test a lot of the fuel additives that were on the market. They found that most of the products they tested either didn’t work or were deleterious to the environment or fell out of solution and settled to the bottom of the tank. So, Lehn took the results of testing and created an additive they could use.
“We were using it for our own racing for a long time,” Lehn said. “But it wasn’t until people started asking for some of our magic juice that Andy and I had the idea that if people are asking for it, why don’t I do the engineering part of it and you put that new master’s degree to work, and put a label on this and take it to market?”
The result was Boostane, an octane booster that can take 93 octane pump gas and lift it to 110 octane for less than the cost of race fuel. Actually, Boostane can increase octane up to 116, but 110 is the tipping point at which it becomes more expensive than race fuel.
It’s important to point out that the NASA CCR section 18.3.1 says explicitly, that “No fuel additives are allowed unless specifically allowed by the class rules,” so check the rulebook before using Boostane for racing applications.
“When we were developing the product, we actually looked at the periodic table and it’s put together quite ingeniously,” Lehn said. “We knew lead did what it said it was going to do, so we tried to pick something that was very close on the periodic table that had some of the same characteristics. And we did that, but just having that element as a part of our formulation wasn’t enough.”
Lehn still had to find a way to keep the ingredients from separating and get them to “play nicely” with one another. He also had to ensure the formula wasn’t harmful to emissions equipment like O2 sensors and catalytic converters. The resulting formula won the SEMA Launch Pad competition, which is the automotive aftermarket’s equivalent of the TV show “Shark Tank.”
“I don’t want to claim that Anthony and I are the smartest guys in the room. I’d like to say it was because of a lot of hard work, because it was, but I think a lot of it had to do with timing,” Lehn said. “There was a lot of technology that came before us, and we were kind of in the position where we had our own need for it. We were able to sit back and with a clean slate look at all the other products that came before us, what people liked and didn’t like, and what we could feasibly assess and solve.”