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Students Mix Up Formula for Chem-E-Car Success

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The right mixture of skill, teamwork, experience and perseverance proved to be the formula for success for Rose-Hulman’s Chem-E-Car team, which earned a strong fourth place finish among 40 teams from throughout the world at the 2017 American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ championships in Minneapolis.

The annual collegiate event, featuring cars ranging in size from shoeboxes to fire hydrants, challenges students to use their knowledge and creativity to develop a vehicle propelled by a chemical energy source that will traverse a prescribed distance carrying a specified load.

The catch is that the amount of load and the distance goal aren’t known until one hour before the competition. Teams must then calculate the appropriate chemical reaction, through two attempts, to allow the cars to come as close as possible to the finish line. This year, the cars had to carry 157 milliliters of water at least 23.5 meters.

In the case of Rose-Hulman’s team, a reaction caused by the mixture of potassium permanganate, oxalic acid and water was used to power the students’ entry, affectionately named ‘The Great Gassby.’

The team, made up of students from a range of majors, devoted hours of practice, and developed an elaborate spreadsheet of chemical calculations, to ensure that they could produce the right amount of pressure to power the car to travel a given distance. Their second attempt missed the 23.5-meter goal by only 15 centimeters.

“This was so much better than we had dreamed,” says current chief chemist Rebecca Swertfeger, an optical engineering major. “All of our hard work paid off in an outstanding effort.”

This was only the third year that Rose-Hulman students had organized an entry in the AIChE student competition, which included teams from across the country as well as international teams. It was the first year that Rose-Hulman qualified for the nationals, after placing second in last spring’s North Central regional competition.

“The car’s success is experimental, rather than theoretical, which is what we usually experience in the classroom,” explains team leader Noah Eckstein. “I like applying chemical engineering and chemistry, while getting my hands dirty working with wrenches and ratchets. In a small-scale way, we’re using chemical principles in a custom car shop. It’s exhilarating to see everything come together.”

Now, several members of the team are already looking ahead to this spring, when a new car is being designed and assembled for the 2018 regional competition, with hopes of returning to the nationals.

“This year’s team has set the bar really high,” says sophomore chemical engineering student Lauren Stork, chief chemist for the 2018 team. “We’re inspired now to do even better.”