November 18, 2008

Chem-E Car Team Wins With Most Accurate Car

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Cornell’s Chem-E Car Team competed this Sunday in the national Chem-E Car competition, taking first place with their shoebox-sized hydrogen fuel cell car. The competition was held at the American Institute of Chemical Engineer’s Centennial annual meeting in Philadelphia.
The cars were designed to transport anywhere between zero and 500 mL of water anywhere between 50 and 100 feet in under two minutes. Right before the competition commenced, an announcement was made that this year’s competitors would need to transport 250 mL exactly 60 feet.
The Cornell team’s vehicle stopped zero inches from the 60-foot marker — the first time a car has ever demonstrated that level of accuracy.
This year’s team focused on precision. Extensive testing and tweaking helped. The car also moved purposefully slow to improve accuracy. The car needed to start and stop by chemical reaction, without brakes.
“It’s unreal — it really is. We were the first team to have ever done perfectly,” said team captain Brian Weitzner ’09.
To time the journey, the team used an iodine-starch reaction, which would turn a clear solution opaque when complete. By adjusting the amounts of chemicals used, the iodine “clock” would turn opaque at a different time. The shine of a laser aimed through this reaction would then be blocked, inhibiting an electric circuit, causing the car to stop.
“It’s important to us because we invest a lot of time and a lot of effort into this car,” said Michael Klees ’09. “Winning yesterday was great because we’ve come so far in the last two years. Back in the spring of 2007, we got a car to move nine inches and we were happy. Our goal was to get a car that moved. That’s when we started with the fuel cell. To go from that to winning national in about a year and a half is amazing.”
The team features 18 undergraduates in chemical, biological and mechanical engineering. They decided to use a hydrogen fuel cell source since it was a cool, clean technology.
With this victory, the team plans to compete in the International Competitive, to be held this August in Montreal.
The team affectionately named their car “The Bender” in honor of the robot character in Futurama, Fox’s animated television science fiction comedy, since the car has some bendable parts. The team needed to build the car using less than $2,000, and the vehicle could not exceed 40 centimeters by 30 centimeters by 18 centimeters — the size of a shoebox.
In total, 34 cars competed. Louisiana State finished second with a car powered by citric acid and sodium carbonate. Texas A&M followed in third, using a car propelled with hydrogen gas.
The team continues to welcome new recruits, and is open to majors beyond Chemical Engineering.