On the Bonneville Salt Flats, around the middle of this month, a 20-year-old man from Washington Terrace, Weber County, will climb into his dragster, switch on the motor, and whisper off in his quest to set a new world land speed record, 136 miles per hour.
The record would be for the fastest electric car, which is why the gleaming white salt will not reflect the staccato roar of a big gasoline engine.
"I'll be going for the electric vehicle under 1,100-pound category," Brent Singleton noted in a telephone interview Sunday.
Readers of Utah Scientific may remember Singleton from a March 2002 feature. At that time, the student at T.H. Bell Junior High, Washington Terrace, was anxious to race a 1992 electric car that had once belonged to Weber State University, and he also was working to save the Salt Flats.
Since then, he has continued his crusade to protect the renowned stretch of salt, winning Environmental Protection Agency Awards. He was congratulated by President Bush for his efforts, and is active in alternative fuel projects. He has become the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association's alternative fuel event coordinator.
And he and his dad, Kent Singleton, have built an electric dragster. They put together the original vehicle when Brent was 12, and it was petroleum-powered. In 2004, "we converted it to be an electric experimental Salt Flat racer," Kent Singleton said.
The flats are a fine place race alternative-fuel vehicles because they're safer than racing at a track with a wall, according to the younger Singleton.
But why the interest in racing alternative-fuel vehicles?
"You're proving that they can be fast," Singleton said. People are concerned about non-gasoline powered cars because they think they won't go fast. By racing them on the flats, the proof of their speed is in the record books. Granted, 135 mph isn't swift compared with the rockets that roar along the flats, but it's faster than people should go on the freeway.
"Racing throughout history has accelerated how fast we go from prototype to everyday drive," he added. "You're pushing this stuff to its limits. So when you find its limits, you break stuff, and you make it better."
People are comfortable with the speed and power of the gasoline engine "because we had a hundred years of making it better, and a lot of that came from racing."
Fossil fuel may be running out. It is responsible for most of the world's air pollution, and gasoline prices keep rising. Singleton thinks the future is with electric cars. "But where you're getting the power from is a problem," he said.
Hydrogen fuel cells or batteries may be the answer, according to him. With the fuel cells, hydrogen and oxygen combine to generate electricity, and the exhaust is water. Batteries need to be charged, and power from nuclear reactors, solar cells, hydroelectric dams and wind turbines are among alternatives not dependent on burning carbon.
Internal-combustion engines are not as efficient as electricity, according to Singleton. "Electric motors are like 90 percent efficient, and you can even increase that efficiency ... and then a gasoline engine is only about 15 to 30 percent efficient."
Electric Jaws Jr. has already flown across the salt, hitting 85 mph in a one-eighth-mile trial. The race later in the month will be on a one-mile track. "It's called the flying mile," Singleton said.
The record doesn't depend on average speed for the mile. Toward the end of the mile is a section called the traps, where the speed is clocked, and the speed there is what counts.
"You hopefully are going as fast as you can in that section," said Singleton, who thinks he can set a new record.
After all, in an eighth of a mile, he went 85 mph in nine seconds. The tachometer hit 3,700 revolutions per minute. "The motor can turn like 7,000 (rpm). So we weren't pushing it."
The vehicle carries 12 motorcycle batteries, each 12 volts. Each battery is about a quarter the size of a regular car battery, and all fit in a battery box.Asked to describe the sensations of racing an electric car on the Salt Flats, Singleton said he was impressed by the air whooshing past. "Electric motors are completely silent other than your chain drive and your wheels. ... It's the coolest thing, how quiet it is."