Courtesy of Cornell ChemE Car

Each year, the student project team Cornell ChemE Car creates two model cars that are started, powered and stopped by chemical reactions.

May 2, 2024

Cornell ChemE Car Races Ahead in Model Car Competition

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Cornell ChemE Car, one of many student-run Cornell Engineering Project Teams, combines equally motivated students of various majors under one common goal — to develop model cars that are powered and stopped solely by chemical reactions. 

Cornell ChemE Car is a competition-based project team that started in 2004. It competes annually at both regional and national competitions hosted by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The team excels in competitions, having placed in the top two at regionals for the past three years.

“The goal is to produce a car, produce a battery or a power source of chosen pressure and be able to stop that car using a chemical reaction,” said senior captain Austin Kwan ’24.

The students on ChemE Car build on existing chemical reactions and car designs to produce two new shoebox-sized cars each year — a battery car and a pressure-based car — to send to ChemE Car competitions. 

This year, the battery car — Bat-tery Mobile — and the pressure-based car — Under Pressure — both excelled in the competition. During the AIChE ChemE Car Northeast Regionals Competition on Saturday and Sunday, Cornell ChemE Car and Under Pressure took home second place in the ChemE Car competition — a competition centered around which team’s model car can carry a certain load closest to a marked finish line. The team also came in first place in the poster competition for its infographic describing the function and mechanism of Under Pressure.

Both of this year’s cars were mechanically constructed from scratch, according to junior captain Babette Gilles ’25.

“I wouldn’t say that everything we put into the car just came out of nowhere,” Gilles said. “It’s built upon years and years of trials, failures or successes and ideas that previous members have come up with.”

These made-from-scratch cars are produced by eight different subteams — battery alpha, battery omega, electronics, business, pressure, potions, mechanical and research development consulting.

Battery alpha and battery omega are the two teams working on battery development and construction. The goals of the two battery teams rotate each semester, with one focusing on new chemical makeups and the other working to improve and test various solid, liquid and gas-based designs. Currently, the battery alpha team is working on a lead acid battery, while the battery omega team is working on an aluminum-air battery.

The mechanics and electronics subteams wire and build the car, carefully keeping it within the size constraint of a shoebox and ensuring that each component connects to the battery

The pressure subteam aims to generate a gas reaction to get the cars running, often based on carbon dioxide reactions, while the potions subteam uses chemical reactions, specifically an iodine clock, to stop the cars.

RDC is a support subteam dedicated to troubleshooting problems on any of the subteams, which helps students take on a more creative and adaptive role, according to Gilles.

“[RDC] investigates new projects that other subteams are thinking about, but either don’t have time for or [that are] not important in the moment but definitely [could] help in the future,” Gilles said. “[I] really bring my creativ[e] side [to] that subteam, and that’s what interested me in the beginning.”

Balancing the subteams is not always easy, though. Kwan and Gilles explained that most of the challenges come from creating, integrating and troubleshooting so many different parts of the car.

However, ChemE Car utilizes collaboration and communication to mitigate these challenges, creating a family of students that helps the cars run smoothly.

“Even if you’re on a power subteam, everyone knows pretty much everything about the car, which is super important for when you actually go to competition,” Gilles said. “Problems arise, and you have to know how to troubleshoot and problem solve.”

Each spring, Cornell ChemE Car attends the regional competition with the intent to qualify for nationals, which take place each fall.

“We are always really strong at competitions, so we’ve qualified every single year at regionals,” Kwan said.

Once the team makes it to nationals, the difference between winning or losing the distance-based ChemE Car portion of the competition is a matter of centimeters.

“It definitely comes down to a little bit of luck and just however the conditions are on [the day of the national competition],” Kwan said.

The expanding competition space has also provided ChemE Car with an opportunity to collaborate, learn and meet other people.

“In competition, there’s a really neat part where we get to meet all the other teams,” Kwan said. “We were placed right next to a team from Saudi Arabia. It was really cool talking about their experience with ChemE Car and what their lives are like.”

As Cornell ChemE Car zooms into nationals, it is hoping to bring home gold from San Diego in November.

Ava Malkin can be reached at [email protected].