Review: Understanding Chemistry through Cars by Geoffrey M. Bowers and Ruth A. Bowers

book cover

For over fifty years I have been interested in cars and the basic principles of internal combustion engines of all types. Dr. Geoffrey M. Bowers and Ruth A. Bowers, MEd have written the unique Understanding Chemistry Through Cars. I was delighted to review this book because it is not a typical book used for teaching chemistry and there are very few books that can bridge chemistry and cars to the extent being presented in this book. The book is a great resource with many examples of applied chemistry that should be of interest to students. Each of the book’s seven chapters follows the same format. After a very short prologue, a list of chemistry concepts followed by expected learning outlines are presented. Five appendices are formatted in a similar fashion. Each chapter in this book contains tables, figures and a bibliography which sometimes include commercial patents.

Chapter 1 presents the properties of gases, kinetic-molecular theory of gases, and tire pressure and pressure units as well as simple gas laws such as Guy-Lussac, Boyle’s, and Charles. The authors discuss struts and shock absorbers and include recent developments in shock absorbers, magnetorheological fluids1. There are discussion of the advantage of tires being filled with nitrogen versus air and how water present in the air can cause corrosion and chemical degradation of tires. A section on air bags gives a detailed account on sodium azide, potassium nitrate and silica. Alternative sources of nitrogen in the air bags such as imidazoles and hydrazides (both less toxic than sodium azide) are described. Systems that can generate carbon dioxide in the air bags are mentioned.2  

Chapter 2 covers combustion, energy and the internal combustion (IC) engine which is illustrated with clear figures. A list of combustion reactions for simple molecules is given. The process of fractional distillation of crude oil is presented in this chapter. Octane number is explained in great detail. There is a section on hybrid vehicles. There is even a section on turbochargers and superchargers. A biodiesel section explains nicely how waste material can be used to power a car. 

Oxidation and reduction are introduced in Chapter 3. The stiochiometry of n-octanol oxidation is analyzed, which nicely bridges chapters 2 and 3. Widely used alkaline batteries are presented as an example of redox chemistry. The chemistry of the common lead-acid car battery is described. The definition of cold cranking amperes (CCA) which is the current in amperes that a battery can generate when outdoor temperature is 0°F or - 18° C is given. Some of the simple remedies for the lead-acid car battery in the winter are mentioned. Lithium ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and catalytic converters are considered. Other electrochemical topcis include anticorrosion fuel additives and chrome plating.

Chapter 4 covers different types of intermolecular forces and their impacts on solubility. Solubility plays critical role in the cooling system of an engine (one does not want a solid in the cooling system of engine). Aqueous fuel emulsions are primarily used in diesel engines. Diesel fuel emulsifiers are mainly surfactant molecules which have hydrophobic and hydrophilic moieties. A section on detergents presents the harmful effects of road salts and salty aerosols which promote corrosion of iron and steel. A section on lubricants discusses how friction can be reduced  between solid contacts and how they disperse the heat. Viscosity as a major feature of lubricants is outlined. Differences between engine-lubricating and transmission-lubricating oil is presented. The multifunctional role of wax in car surface protection from water and ions and car paint as protection against UV radiation is described. 

Chpater 5, “Managing Heat”, begins with heat loss (which is a major cause of inefficiency of cars) and describes types of cooling systems and defines a coolant. Water is a major component of coolants and colligative properties are described. A heat exchanger (radiator) is typically made of aluminum metal with a large surface area. Air-conditioning was introduced as early as 1930 in Packard automobiles. Hazardous early chemical refrigerants (ammonia and methylene chloride) were replaced by the chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which in turn have been replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFC). All refrigerants are powerful greenhouse gases. The authors emphasize that use of advanced refrigerants without deleterious effects is years away. A section on braking, rotor types and calipers is included.

Plastics, polymers, and copolymers are presented early in Chapter 6 (Materials). Composite materials are introduced since these are components of car parts such as brake pads, fiberglass, laminated safety glass and clutch plates. The authors give a succinct definition of monocoque3,4 chassis; “A monocoque is a chassis where the external skin of the vehicle is part of the structural support for the vehicle itself.” Carbon fiber monocoques are extremely expensive and are currently used in high performance cars. Different types of car tires such as summer tires, winter tires, and all-season tires are described. A section on rubber discusses multiple uses of rubber in car parts such as tires, hoses, pedal surfaces, gaskets, windshield wiper blades and suspensions. Physical properties of rubber and the chemistry of vulcanization are presented. A delightful discussion on phase diagrams is included in the discussion of alloys. The authors rightfully note at the end of this chapter that the cost of hydrogen gas production is $7-13 per gallon more than the gasoline equivalent. 

Chapter 7, “Light and Your Car” begins with pigments and colors used in car paints. A color insert presents critical chromophore groups.4 Since photochemical degradation plays an important role in a car’s pigments and paints, ultraviolet light is introduced. A section on headlights and and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) gives a very nice description of halogen headlights and describes their advantages over incandescent lamps. The chemistry of high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps used in luxury cars is explained in detail.

Five appendices provide additional material. The first three appendices cover introductory chemistry topics: matter and measurements, atoms and elements and organic chemistry. Appendix 4 offers a description of major systems in the car, and finally appendix 5 provides advanced extension exercises for capstone courses. At the end of this wonderful book is a 23-page index.  
Ruth and Geoffrey Bowers, both chemistry educators and car enthusiasts, have created a wonderful book that bridges chemistry and engineering. Understanding Chemistry Through Cars can be used as an auxiliary book for teaching undergraduate general chemistry for both science and engineering majors and some material could be adapted for graduate or high school use. This book may be a good learning tool for newly hired lecturers without previous teaching experience, they can follow the format for their lecture structure based on the concept used in this book. This book is highly recommended.


  1. Goodwin, J. W. and Hughes, R. W. Rheology for Chemists An Introduction, 2nd Ed. The Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, UK 2008.
  2. F. E. Schneiter, “Gas Generator” US Patent3,692,495, filed June 19, 1970 and issued Sep. 19, 1972.
  3. Monocoque Origin 20th century from French mono-“single” + coque-shell – technical term - single-hull. (accessed Jan 21, 2016).
  4. (accessed Feb 2, 2016)
    the Sesto Elemento has a carbon fibre monocoque chasis. Name is a reference to the atomic number of carbon. This Lamborghini model of high performance car got it’s name because extensive use of carbon fibre. Sesto Elemanto uses power-train platform form Lamborghini Gallardo
  5. Herbst, W.; and. Flunger, K. Industrial Organic Pigments, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 2006.
Publication information
Alt. Title: 

Understanding Chemistry through Cars

Pick Attribution: 

Geoffrey M. Bowers and Ruth A. Bowers

Publication Date: 
Monday, November 3, 2014