The demands from a formula 1 fuel are quite extreme due to the requirement of novel chemicals with exotic properties.

Ahfaz Khan (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Motorsports Fuel Developer at Shell Global Solutions, develops advanced sustainable fuels that deliver superior performance for teams like Ferrari Formula 1 and Ducati MotoGP .

Ahfaz talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD on Fuel Design for advanced combustion engines and his work on combustion chemistry which led to a career in motorsports fuels.

For students, there are always going to be challenges in your path, but it’s incredibly rewarding to witness your contribution towards winning championships.

Ahfaz, can you tell us about your background?

My dad was a government employee and due to his job we used to move a lot within undivided Madhya Pradesh. We found some stability as a family when Chhatisgarh was carved out of MP and he was posted in Raipur. This is where I spent most of my early youth years. During this time I also realized (mainly due to one of my teachers) that I am deeply interested in physics and mathematics. This inclination was further reinforced with science and engineering shows on discovery channel and national geographic which made engineering a natural next step. On the extracurricular side, I would say I had no special talents or skills, I used to play sports but that was mainly for fun and socializing. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied mechanical engineering for my undergraduation since I was fascinated by mechanics and thermodynamics during schooling. I continued with thermal and fluid engineering for my masters after which I worked for a few years at Tata Motors at their research center. This was the time when I started thinking about a PhD. This idea of PhD was motivated by the quality of research I was exposed to at that time. I made a few applications for PhD programs across the EU and got admits in some decent UK universities. Then I came across this newly opened university in Saudi Arabia. I was initially not entirely sure though I still made an application. After learning more about the quality of research and researchers working there. I accepted their offer and spent 5.5 years working on my PhD. I did my PhD at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), Saudi Arabia.

The topic of my PhD was fuel design which basically is fuel development for specific engine technologies. 

What prompted you to pursue such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

At Tata motors, I worked on engine development. This entails optimizing engine’s performance, fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions over the entire operating range of the vehicle. This experience allowed me to learn intricacies of combustion processes involved in engine/fuel interactions.

However, I felt stagnation in my job after a few years and decided to go for PhD. During my PhD, I worked on fuel design for advanced combustion engines. This work involved optimization of fuel to match engine appetite so that best performance could be attained. Since I am a mechanical engineer I did not have a detailed understanding of chemistry which is necessary to understand fuels. A PhD allows one enough time and avails you enough resources to learn new skills. Another reason for my choosing to attend Kaust for my PhD was their generous scholarship package. This kind of support alleviates all your worries over basic needs of life and minor everyday problems so that you can focus on your research and enjoy university life. 

During the final years of my PhD I was tasked with a project to develop fuel for the Mclaren Formula 1 team. I along with my team, worked on this project for a few months where I developed a keen interest in motorsports. The skills I acquired during my PhD form the backbone of any fuel development process. The demands from a formula 1 fuel are quite extreme and it often involves novel chemicals with exotic properties. However the rules of combustion physics and chemistry still holds which is instrumental to my job. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

However I didn’t get any opportunity to work on motorsports immediately after my PhD. I moved to Scandinavia for work on different topics.

Although I was working on relevant areas of automotive technologies, I was always looking for positions in motorsports. I certainly had the skills needed, excellent qualifications and internships at prestigious institutions like Lawrence Livermore National Lab, US and National Institute of Standards and Technology, US. I think the major challenge was the small size of the industry with very few positions.

Right after my PhD, I moved to NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Norway. There I worked on combustion chemistry of ammonia/hydrogen systems. To elaborate, any combustion process involves reactions between reactants (fuel and oxidizer which is often air ) when the pressure and temperature are high enough, leading to products (often CO2+H2O). In high school text books we often see reactions such as Fuel+O2 = CO2 + H2O. However in reality there are thousands of steps involved between reactants and products. These intermediate steps determine the pollutant formation, heat release rates thus determining engine performance. During my time at LLNL, I worked specifically on biofuels combustion chemistry and at Chalmers I learnt machine learning and applied it to heavy duty diesel engines.

At P1 fuels I was worked on various aspects of racing fuel development and machine learning. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was through networking with people on Linkedin. This allowed me to showcase my skills and make myself known to potential employers if and when an opportunity arises.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: My biggest challenge was unfamiliarity with the EU job market and potential employers. Spending time on Linkedin with custom searches and following relevant people helped me overcome this challenge.

Challenge 2: Another challenge I had to face was the language barrier, I have lived in Norway (Sweden), and now in Germany and all have their own languages. This barrier is a significant one which basically puts a filter on your options. To come across this hurdle, I tailored my job search specifically to English language positions. Once you are called for an interview you have to give your best since such jobs in the EU are limited.

Challenge 3: Then there is of course the challenge of living in a foreign land with unfamiliar laws, weather, language. This is something I am still dealing with and this is a significant cost for wanting to do meaningful work. Making local friends is something which is very helpful and helps you feel more included in foreign countries, learning the local language is also very helpful.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work in Motorsport Fuels

Currently I am employed with Shell Global Solutions as a Motorsport Fuel Developer. Shell has longstanding partnerships with Ferrari formula 1 team and Ducati MotoGP teams. My job is to develop advanced sustainable fuels for these teams. The fuels not only need to be sustainable but also should deliver superior performance helping our partners to win championships. On a typical day I am working with my colleagues at Shell and Ferrari to design and test blends to understand engine/fuel interactions. The ultimate goal is to find the perfect fuel blends and engine mappings to win the races. This is the perfect job where I get to work with the best of the best in sustainable fuels and engine technology. There are challenges but it’s rewarding to witness your contribution towards winning the championships.   

How does your work benefit society? 

My role as a fuel developer for formula 1 focuses on bringing about high-performance sustainable fuels to win races and reduce greenhouse gasses, eventually slowing down global warming. Formula 1 serves as a platform to innovate in the engine and fuel technologies space which eventually benefits passenger cars. Sustainable fuels have a significant part to play in decarbonization and energy transitions.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

This job is very close to my inclinations and every day is rewarding in terms of challenges. Every time Ferrari and Ducati secures a top position, it reminds me of the impact and responsibility of the job. Every win is a memorable event.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice would be to identify your interests early on by exposing yourself to various experiences by finding internships, attending talks and engaging with people. This will allow you to identify a career which will be interesting and drive you to make your life fulfilling and rewarding.

Future Plans?

I plan to stay with Shell and support our partners in their energy transition journey. I wish to continue to develop fuels which are low carbon and simultaneously best performing.