It was a long and challenging road for University of Michigan students to the American Institute of Chemical Engineer’s (AIChE) Chem-E-Car Regional Competition this spring.
The U-M Chem-E-Car team placed third in the AIChE regional competition in Akron, OH in April after a turbulent path to the competition. This November, the team will move on to the national competition at the Annual Student Conference during the AIChE meeting in Phoenix, AZ where they will compete for the H. Scott Fogler first place award.
In 2019, the U-M Chem-E-Car team placed eighth in the national AIChE competition in Orlando, FL. Many members from the 2019 team graduated prior to the 2021-2022 competition period. Racquel “Rocky” Harrison, a pre-pharmacy major who joined the Chem-E-Car team in 2018, was one of few remaining members. Harrison became the group’s vice-president in 2020 and was excited to lead the interdisciplinary team back to nationals with club president, Brian Yam in their final year at U-M.
What is Chem-E Car?
Annually, students at colleges around the nation design and construct shoe-box sized cars powered by a chemical energy source that will run a specified distance then stop. The Chem-E-Car Competition® was established in 1999 to “increase awareness of the chemical engineering discipline among the public, industry leaders, educators and other students.”
The Chem-E-Car created by the regional team was powered by a zinc battery, with all parts produced on a 3D printer. The zinc battery drives an electric motor to push the car forward. To tell the car when to start and stop, the team begins a chemical chameleon reaction where manganese undergoes dramatic color shifts as it changes oxidation states (KMnO4 (violet) → K2MnO4 (green) → MnO2 (brown/yellow suspension). These color changes are detected by a photo resistor attached to the car and connected to an Arduino chip that is programmed to stop the car when the chemical reaction reaches the final yellow color.
Building the car
Constructing the car’s battery proved to be the most daunting part of the build process. Two weeks before the competition, the team realized the car they had designed was too large for the battery and had to rebuild. Assistant Professor Nirala Singh, the team advisor, was a valuable resource to the group as they re-constructed their battery.
“Each year I am so happy to see how excited the Chem-E-Car team members are about building their car, and how dedicated and resilient they are in bringing everything together,” Singh said. “I enjoy advising the club and am thankful for the new students that join each year, combined with the senior students that help get them up to speed to make the club a success. Of course, we expect nothing less from our exceptional undergraduates!”
2022-2023 Chem-E-Car team president, Robert Stewart, brought his personal 3D printer to contribute to this year’s regional competition, which had a much larger build volume than the printer previously used by the group. “This allowed us to print the base of the chassis in one piece rather than four, reducing the required thickness of the base and thus the weight of the car. This, in addition to improvements to our battery, allowed for the great run that placed us third at regionals,” Stewart said.
Despite early transportation struggles, the U-M Chem-E-Car team did make it to Akron on time for the competition and saw their car run successfully for the first time during their second attempt in the race. They added a cardboard insert to compress the battery and the car almost completed the required 20.22 meters. This means that both the zinc battery and the chameleon reaction worked almost perfectly.
A bright future
This fall, Harrison started a PhD program in pharmacology at Wayne State University. Although new officers will lead the team to the national competition in November, Harrison says she may hang around to offer guidance before the competition.
“I didn’t think that I would be able to run a successful build team as a non-engineering female, but the team made it to nationals,” Harrison said. “In previous years, I was the only woman on the team and the only one who had gone to a competition pre-COVID. Now, over half of the team are intelligent, beautiful women engineers and the future of Chem-E-Car has never looked brighter!”
Long-time U-M Chemical Engineering professor, H. Scott Fogler, who passed away in August 2021, founded the undergraduate student chapter competition over thirty years ago. The AIChE Foundation honored him by naming the first prize award after him. Before AIChE established the national car race, Fogler held car competitions in ChE 344, Reaction Engineering Design.