Penske Clearing The Air

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. - A carbon monoxide removal unit developed in a joint project between Penske Racing South, NASA, and Smoke Mask will make its debut in Dodges driven by Ryan Newman and Brendan Gaughan in the May 15 Pontiac Performance 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway.

The system, which has been under development for more than a year and was tested by Gaughan May 5 at the 0.75-mile Richmond track, uses two filters - one containing carbon and the other a platinum-based catalyst developed by NASA to convert carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. Contained in a carbon fiber housing located in the driver's compartment, the unit has a total weight of less than 3 pounds. It can be connected to an InterCooler, a unit also developed by Penske Racing that provides cool air inside a driver's helmet, or hooked directly to the driver's helmet. It also possesses its own power unit, which allows the flow of air to the driver to be controlled.

Penske Racing President Don Miller emphasized that correct air delivery was critical if the catalyst was to be activated properly. The air containing the carbon monoxide, as well as other poisonous gases found in a car's exhaust emissions, must have a specific lag time in the system for the filtration and conversion to occur. Research shows that gases filtered out of the exhaust emissions by the carbon include sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, and oxides of nitrogen. However, carbon monoxide passes through a carbon filter and, therefore, must be converted by a catalyst.

"Anything less and the drivers will still be exposed to some very harmful contaminants, which will directly affect their health," said Matt Davis, of the company Smoke Mask, which also was involved in the project. "The multi-staged applications are specifically engineered to reduce the direct exposure a driver will have from exhaust emissions."

Miller said it was when Penske Racing took a race car to NASA's high-speed wind tunnel at Langley, Va., that the importance of air delivery became a realization.

"We realized we had to control the inlet and the delivery of the air to the filtering mechanism much better than we had in the past," Miller said. "That's when we actually designed and built the InterCooler. We matched the InterCooler to the filter box where the catalyst goes."

Penske Racing engineer Paul Rochotte developed the InterCooler, which weighs 4 pounds 12 ounces. Introduced in December 2003, it is marketed by Kustom Komponents in Temple, Pa. Like the carbon monoxide removal unit, it is cylindrical in shape and it has its own external feed blower. Rochotte also worked with Davis on development of the carbon monoxide removal unit.

"NASA has formulas for just how much catalyst you need for a specific amount of air passing through the filter," Rochotte said. "Once you know your air flow, then you calculate the amount of catalyst you need so that you don't overbuild the unit."

The low temperature catalyst takes three weeks to manufacture and is created on demand by the Science and Technology Center. Smoke Mask makes the carbon monoxide removal unit, but Penske Racing possesses the distribution rights.

The catalyst costs $1 per gram and is made in batches of 7,200 grams, enough for 24 filters. Tests have shown the catalyst filter will last two races, while the less-expensive carbon filter should be changed after every race.

Miller said now-retired NASA employee Dr. Frank Farmer was instrumental in the unit's development.

"He had done a multitude of research on this subject as an adjunct to projects involving aircraft and satellites," Miller said. "They put me on to a SAE paper that described this particular kind of catalyst. From that, we did additional research to find the proper individuals and anything that we could find that had been done prior to this so we could get a strong base for our future development."

Miller said he, Newman, crew chief Matt Borland, and engineer Roy McCauley began gathering data on carbon monoxide in 2002 after Newman received a heavy dose of the poisonous gas during a race. Rochotte joined the project last summer.

Dr. Alfred Mortez, a sports medicine doctor who formerly lived in Hickory, N.C., began researching carbon monoxide and its affects on race car drivers in the late 1980s, but the issue didn't move to the forefront until it ended Rick Mast's driving career a few years ago.

The carbon monoxide removal unit isn't Penske Racing's first venture with NASA. In the mid-1990s, Miller worked with NASA shuttle engineers and the "Mission HOME" program at Rockwell International in developing heat shields for the driver's compartment. The shields are made from the same material used to protect NASA's shuttles from the intense heat they face. Initially, the thermal blankets made of spun ceramic and glass materials were placed in various locations in the driver's compartment, including above the exhaust pipe, beneath the floor and under the seat, thus reducing the heat in the cockpit by up to 50 degrees. Now, the silver-colored material can also be found on Newman's driving shoes.

"NASA gets some pretty hard raps for things that don't come out exactly correct, but no one ever commends them for the hundreds, maybe thousands of things they have done that contribute to our every day life," Miller said.

In appreciation for NASA's help in developing the carbon monoxide removal unit, Miller and Newman are making PSAs in an effort to help raise funds for the restoration of the only remaining Saturn V rocket made completely from stages and spacecraft intended to launch Americans into Earth orbit and to the moon. Restoration of the 363-foot tall booster is costing $2.5 million. Half of the amount is available from a dollar-for-dollar matching grant from the Save America's Treasures Program, a public-private partnership that includes the White House, the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. More than $590,000 in matching funds has already been provided or pledged through the fundraising efforts of an independent committee in Houston. An additional $540,000 is required to complete the preservation work.

Miller also has a personal interest in the project since daughter Patty is one of the rocket's restorers.

Donations toward the restoration of the Houston Saturn V should be mailed to: National Air and Space Museum, Saturn V Fund, P.O. Box 23197, Washington.

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