Academic story

Fueling Cleaner Combustion on and off the Racetrack

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When you think about Saudi Arabia, chances are that oil is one of the first things that comes to mind. But what you might not know is that scientists at the Kingdom’s leading graduate university are also leading the way in clean combustion. Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) are working together at the University’s Clean Combustion Research Center to fight the global challenges associated with fossil fuel combustion. Their goal is to improve the safety and efficiency of a wide range of combustion technologies as well as lower the environmental impact of polluting emissions. 

The buzz around the Clean Combustion Research Center started eight years ago and it’s what drew Professor Mani Sarathy to KAUST at around the same time. Mani is an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at KAUST and is also the associate director of the center. He focuses on developing a chemical understanding of how to design fuels that can increase engine efficiency and are less polluting. This kind of research has implications for all kinds of vehicles, from cars and planes to ships and even Formula 1 race cars. 

Last year, Formula 1 racing team McLaren Racing and KAUST began a five-year R&D partnership to develop extreme performance technology and improve fuel formulations. In the extreme environment of an F1 race, fractions of a second differentiate the winners from the losers. F1 engines are more complex, efficient and high-powered compared to regular car engines, so having the right fuel mixture becomes extremely important. 

Mani (centrer) with Jonathan Neale (left), chief operations officer of McLaren Group, and John Cooper (right), chief business officer of McLaren Racing. Image courtesy of KAUST. 

“An F1 engine pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with technology so we can do the same thing with the fuel,” explains Mani. “We can design extreme fuels and advance our understanding of how fuels behave in really extreme environments.”

While the fuels the researchers design are customized for high-performance race engines, the tools and methodology used to develop them are readily transferable to other engines. KAUST researchers are now using the same tools to improve diesel truck engines and to design biofuels for airplanes. 

Working at KAUST gives Mani industrial sponsorship opportunities that he wouldn’t have had if he had stayed in the US. In North America, combustion groups face more competition for partnerships with multinationals, but through KAUST, he has been able to work on projects with Saudi Aramco, GE, Volvo Trucks and Boeing.

KAUST also offered Mani the chance to build his own research program. Before joining KAUST, he worked as a research scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“I was working on a program that was already established and going well. There was limited opportunity to take a risk and do something different or start something new,” he says.  

KAUST's Clean Combustion Research Center. Image courtesy of KAUST. 

By contrast, he describes his start at KAUST seven years ago as being offered a blank slate. He was able to choose his own research areas, hire his own team, and build his own lab from scratch.

“All our labs are fit to purpose,” he mentions. “You’re essentially given a concrete slab and then work with civil engineers and architects to build the lab you need for your research. At the end of it, you have a lab that’s really tailor-made. You can do the kind of experiments you need without worrying about having to do modifications or bringing in new equipment.”

“We also have access to KAUST’s Core Labs facilities,” he continued. “For a group of 1,500 to 2,000 researchers, the availability and access to resources here are unparalleled. 

"To conduct high-level research, you need access to the best tools--and KAUST gives you access to the best tools.” 

Mani’s research also benefits from the diverse group of students and researchers on campus. They bring new ideas and new ways of thinking to the University.

“The students who come here aren't risk-averse because they’ve already taken a risk in moving to a new place. This is a benefit when it comes to research because they’re willing to try new ideas and see where [they go],” he adds.

This kind of out-of-the-box thinking is what makes KAUST the perfect place for researchers to solve pressing global problems arising from fossil fuel combustion.  

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Published 2019-09-18

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KAUST is devoted to finding solutions for some of the world’s most pressing scientific challenges in the areas of food, water, energy and the environment.

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Featured researcher

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Mani Sarathy

Professor Mani Sarathy is an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at KAUST and is also the associate director of the University’s Clean Combustion Research Center.

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