With the lowest gas prices in New Haven hovering around $3, combustion research, especially with regard to fuel efficiency, continues to be topic of scientific, environmental and financial interest.

From solving computational combustion problems to engineering a car that runs on vegetable oil, Yale faculty and students are joining theory and practice in an attempt to broaden the scope of combustion knowledge in a way that may contribute to energy efficiency technology in the future.

Dan Wiznia ’06 and members of the Yale Engineering Design Team are tackling one such project. This semester, the team is working on converting the engine of a Chevy Suburban to run exclusively on bio-fuel — in this case vegetable oil — a project they hope to finish by Halloween.

After the engine is completed, Wiznia said he and his team hope to compare the emissions from the new vehicle to a regular diesel engine and examine the differences resulting from various fuel mixtures. They also plan to drive the vehicle to local elementary schools, demonstrating to students the ways in which science can be both “fun and interesting” as well as beneficial to society, Wiznia said.

The team has garnered significant financial support for the project from the engineering, mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering departments, as well as the Science Council at Yale. Wiznia said the group has received between $7,000 to 8,000 for its work.

Although students at other universities have accomplished the same conversion, Wiznia said his group’s work is unique because of the special attention they plan on paying to emissions.

“We are trying to create a library of knowledge on the emissions and really look in depth at the particulate matter [in the exhaust],” he said.

In addition, the team plans to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical by integrating computer modeling into their project, Wiznia said.

“Although it might not be ground-breaking, I still think that there’s a lot we can learn from it,” he said. “And, it’s exciting.”

The team’s faculty sponsors, Mitchell Smooke, Marshall Long and Alessandro Gomez, are part of another group at Yale making important strides in the field of combustion.

Along with Richard Chang, Lisa Pfefferle, and Daniel Rosner, these professors make up the research faculty of the Yale Center for Combustion Studies, “an interdisciplinary research center [which] uses experimental, computational, and mathematical techniques to deal with … combustion systems,” according to the center’s Web site.

Long, a mechanical engineering professor, said the work they do together is particularly effective because the faculty hail from three different departments — mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and applied physics — and because their skills and interests are so varied.

Pfefferle works primarily on catalytic combustion and combustion chemistry, while Smooke specializes in computational combustion, and Rosner is interested in particle synthesis. Members of the center work closely while individually tackling different aspects of a problem according to their own skills, Long said.

“[Yale] has a very complementary group of people working together,” said Chang, a professor of applied physics. “It is small but world-class.”

Like the Engineering Design Team, Long said a primary concern of the Center for Combustion Studies is combustion efficiency, which leads to fuel efficiency. Another goal, he said, is an increase in the accuracy and practicality of computer modeling, which is still far from perfect, although it is becoming more widely used in the field.

Long said an aeronautical engineer, for example, can sit down and design an airplane at his work station that will function as he desires. A jet engine, on the other hand, cannot be accurately modeled on a computer at this point in time. But a better understanding of the fundamentals of combustion will lead to better computer modeling, allowing engineers to optimize efficiency and pollutant emissions, Long said.

Another Yale undergraduate, Paul Schaffer ’07, spent his summer working for Pfefferle on environmental aspects of fuel emissions. Their research focused on the reduction of soot emissions in common fuels by the addition of oxygenates.

“Increase in efficiency is a fringe effect, but the long-term goal of the research was to reduce noxious emissions,” Schaffer said. “The short-term goal was getting a better understanding of the reaction mechanisms of combustion.”

Long said although the combustion research done at the University has the potential to directly impact the amount of money people spend on fuel, the field of combustion research in general is receiving less and less funding as other fuel technologies come into the public spotlight.

“It seems like combustion is considered old technology, and so it is getting harder for us to raise money to do these things,” he said. “Maybe that will turn around.”

In addition, Long said most of the funding for energy research in the United States is going toward technology that probably will not replace hydrocarbon fuel, such as fuel cells, and toward finding more oil, which does not solve the problems of fuel efficiency and pollution.