The road to Chem-E-Car nationals

The U-M Chem-E-Car team received an outstanding sportsmanship award at the national competition in Phoenix, AZ after unforeseen challenges disrupted the event. The team will compete in an upcoming virtual competition hosted by AIChE.

After placing third at the regional Chem-E-Car competition in Akron, Ohio this spring the U-M Chem-E-Car team rallied for the national competition last weekend in Phoenix, AZ.

The 2022 Chem-E-Car finals were held as part of the American Institute of Chemical Engineer’s (AIChE) Annual Student Conference, over 30 teams from around the world convened to compete for the H. Scott Fogler first place award. 

The competition

On the road to compete for the H. Scott Fogler first place award, the team faced unexpected challenges, much like their trek to regionals. The morning the team was scheduled to fly to Phoenix, flights were canceled. After rearranging flights and arriving to Phoenix late, the team was notified that due to a delay in shipping, they were missing zinc plates and manganese dioxide needed to power their car battery.  

The team quickly researched potential travel restrictions on manganese dioxide and found that it could be stored in luggage. After receiving permission from the event hosts to have the chemical delivered late, team faculty advisor Nirala Singh was able to bring the manganese dioxide from Ann Arbor the morning of the competition. 

U-M Chem-E-Car team present at nationals in Phoenix, from left to right: Daniel Pert, Jayden Elliott, Sophia Lee, Tiffany Ge and Naia Peters.

The manganese dioxide made it to Phoenix in time, but upon arriving at the competition arena the team found out they were also missing potassium permanganate, which is a critical component of the color-changing reaction that stops their car. The zinc battery powers an electric motor that moves the car forward while the chemical chameleon reaction undergoes changes in color, which is detected through a photoresistor and a programmed Arduino chip to determine when the car stops.

Without contacts or peers at local universities, the team was unable to borrow the missing chemical from a nearby laboratory and found that their only option was a potassium permanganate water filtration product stocked at a home improvement store 40 minutes away. 

While the subteam officers stayed behind to prep, team Vice President Sophia Lee booked an Uber to make the journey to purchase the chemicals. 

After a successful retrieval, the U-M team worked diligently to adjust their car with the replacement chemical in time to compete.

During preparations, the U-M team noticed that shipping delays impacted several other teams and many were scrambling to figure out how their cars would run properly without essential chemicals. Having purchased more potassium permanganate water filtration product than they needed for their car, the U-M team offered to share the chemical with other teams that used similar stopping reactions. 

“Our stopping captain, Naia Peters, strongly advocated sharing our chemicals with other teams in order to allow everyone to compete,” Lee said. “During poster presentations, we found that there were several overlaps between the batteries and stopping reactions of many teams. We all had difficult journeys to get to nationals at Phoenix, so it made sense to do what we could to get the event back on track.”

“Zig Zag” and Zoom

The U-M team’s car “Zig Zag” was ready to compete. Each team participating in the competition had two opportunities to demonstrate the performance of their car. 

During Zig Zag’s first run, it surprised the team by not budging from the starting line. The cause was a disconnected wire related to the photoresistor that measures the transparency of the stopping solution.

Between the first and second runs, the team was able to tape the wire down to prevent it from coming unplugged again, but the zinc plates in the battery were partially corroded from the first attempt. Initially, the team planned to have fresh zinc plates for each run to maximize battery performance, but the spare plates were missing due to shipping delays and could not be replaced before the competition. 

Even though the stopping mechanism worked correctly during the second run, the battery was too weak to move the car due to the corroded plates. 

Although Zig Zag did not have the successful run the team hoped for,  they were honored with an outstanding sportsmanship award for sharing their chemicals and will have an opportunity to compete in a virtual competition hosted by AIChE via Zoom. 

As a leader, I feel incredibly lucky to work with officers who step up during unforeseen circumstances and are vocal about their opinions. In that sense, the sportsmanship award fittingly captures the spirit of the team as we rebuild from the pandemic.

sophia Lee
U-M chem-E-Car Team Vice President

“After facing so many challenges every step of the way to nationals, I am grateful that our team could still walk away with some form of recognition,” Lee said. “As a leader, I feel incredibly lucky to work with officers who step up during unforeseen circumstances and are vocal about their opinions. In that sense, the sportsmanship award fittingly captures the spirit of the team as we rebuild from the pandemic.”

The virtual competition, originally scheduled to be hosted the weekend after nationals for teams who could not travel to Phoenix, will give the U-M team and Zig Zag another chance to compete. AIChE is welcoming all but the top 3 in-person finishers to compete in the rescheduled virtual competition due to the shipping disruptions in Phoenix. 

2022 AIChE Finals Outstanding Sportsmanship Award

“As we prepare for the virtual competition, I think we are in a pretty good place since we have access to all of the chemicals we need, and we will make sure that all of our electrical connections are secure,” Chief Engineer Jayden Elliott said. “For the future we may also consider using a protoboard rather than a breadboard so we can solder all of our connections so that there’s no chance of something disconnecting again.”

While preparations for the virtual competition come at a busy time for students due to final exams approaching, the team hopes to use the opportunity to involve as many team members as possible. 

“Since the competition will be live over Zoom, our team members who were not able to travel to Phoenix after flight cancelations will be able to participate,” Lee said. “Our new recruits will also be able to go through the motions of an in-person competition and see other teams run in real time.”

Join the team

The U-M Chem-E-Car team is currently recruiting new members, students interested in joining the tight-knit community and collaborating in a hands-on environment are encouraged to email the team to learn more about becoming a member. 

Long-time U-M Chemical Engineering professor, H. Scott Fogler, founded the undergraduate student chapter Chem-E-Car competition over thirty years ago and served for more than 10 years as U-M’s AIChE Student Faculty Advisor. In 2017, colleagues, friends and former students established an endowment through AIChE to honor his legacy and commitment to the education of students and the practice of chemical engineering. The AIChE Foundation honored his legacy by naming the first place award after him.