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Sandia LabNews

Pedal to the metal: Sandian helps UNM students reach the finish line


Imane Khalil and Garrett Kuehner
SANDIA ENGINEER Imane Khalil and project manager Garrett Kuehner work together on the University of New Mexico’s 2012 Formula SAE race car. Imane teaches engine theory to the student team led by Kuehner. This year’s car is a few weeks away from completion. It will compete in June against cars built by undergraduate student teams from across the country.

Every year, mechanical engineering students at the University of New Mexico build a serious race car. And every year, Sandia’s Imane Khalil guides them to the heart of the job — the engine.

“It’s a blast. We love working with her,” says Garrett Kuehner, project manager of this year’s UNM Formula SAE (FSAE) race car team. “Everyone recommends her course.”

Imane, manager of Structural and Thermal Analysis Dept. 6233, is an adjunct professor in the UNM mechanical engineering department. Her class, High Performance Engine, is one of several that comprise the optional FSAE capstone design course for seniors. Students who opt for FSAE work as a team to build, from the ground up, a race car that competes against entries from universities worldwide.

“My class covers the theory of the engine and how to improve the engine’s performance,” Imane says. “It brings together everything they have learned in four years.”  

FSAE, started in 1979, is a student design competition for university undergraduates organized by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers. Its concept is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to develop a small Formula-style race car to be evaluated for its potential as a production item. The target customer is the non-professional weekend autocross racer.

Each student team designs, builds, and tests a prototype based on a set of rules. The car then competes in one or more of seven international competitions in static and dynamic tests. Static tests are design, cost, and business presentation. Dynamic tests are acceleration, skid pad, autocross, endurance, and fuel economy.

FSAE encompasses all aspects of the engineering industry including research, design, manufacturing, management, development, testing, marketing, and finances.

UNM has entered cars in North American FSAE competitions since 1997. In 1998, the program came under the wing of Professor John Russell, a retired Air Force colonel, who made the project an accredited course.

 Its cars generally finish in the top 25 percent of all US and world divisions, despite having an operating budget in the lower 50 percent of teams. The UNM team has finished as high as 14th in the world and 10th in the US, and last year was eighth in design and ninth in autocross, its best showing ever in those events.

This year’s competition will be in Lincoln, Neb., June 20-23. “We’re getting better and better each year,” Kuehner says. “It’s an evolutionary design process. Each team builds on the previous year.”

Hands-on engineering

The program is set up for about 25 students who work on the race car over three semesters, or 18 months. Design begins in the spring and runs through summer. Manufacturing starts in the fall and wraps up the following spring, allowing for some overlap as the incoming team begins design work for its car. The team then prepares for the summer competition.

The team divides into groups that work on different parts of the car: chassis, suspension and steering, brakes, engine, drivetrain, and aerodynamics. Each group uses complex software during the design phase, and their input goes into creating a detailed CAD model of the car.

“This is the flagship project in the mechanical engineering program where students get hands-on design and manufacturing experience in a professional engineering setting,” Kuehner says. “The program is run similarly to a small business, mimicking the type of work found in industry. Considering team members are also balancing other courses, work, and personal lives, there are many sleepless nights spent working on the project.”

The estimated annual budget for the program is $55,000. About $18,000 goes to raw materials, as 95 percent of the vehicle is made at UNM. Sandia is a key sponsor, donating $10,000 a year through Community Involvement. “Sandia is doing a lot to help this program excel in terms of money and intellectual resources,” Imane says. “We really want to help the science and engineering at UNM.”

Imane’s one-semester class covers engine theory, including thermodynamics, heat transfer, and fluids, and works with Ricardo software — used by Ford, GM, and other auto manufacturers — to model the high-performance engine: 500 cc, dual overhead cam, 5 valve per cylinder. It runs on 85 percent ethanol.

“We buy an engine and by using computer modeling and simulations, we come up with improvements that optimize the engine for speed,” says Imane, who has been teaching the class six years ago.

Program director Russell says Imane’s contribution has been invaluable. “Much of the reason for our continued success can be attributed to Dr. Khalil’s dedicated support,” he says.

Giving back

Imane says she is proud of the students, most of whom continue on to graduate school. Some have been hired by auto heavyweights like Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda.

“I love teaching and academia,” Imane says. “It’s my way of giving back to the community. I want to help UNM and help students excel at what they’re doing.”

Imane was born and raised in Lebanon during that country’s violent civil war. She moved to the US in 1989 and studied mechanical engineering at the University of California at San Diego, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a doctorate in fluid and gas dynamics. She was hired at Sandia eight years ago.

Imane worked four years in California building airplane engines, a job that qualified her to teach in the FSAE program at UNM.

“It’s fun to work with the students,” she says. “I love science so teaching this class is not work to me. I leave the classroom feeling grateful to have this opportunity. It is very fulfilling.”

Imane says she feels strongly about mentoring young people because she had a mentor in her life.

“My graduate advisor, professor David Miller, gave me invaluable guidance and support which I attribute to the successes I’ve had,” Imane says. “In addition to teaching, I have had many opportunities for mentoring. The students are very receptive to the help a practicing engineer can provide. I have seen some of my students, with a little push, go much farther in their careers than they expected.”