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Ohio University chemical engineering students win national safety design award

ChemECar by Brian BellATHENS, OHIO (Nov. 15, 2010) - A team of chemical and biomolecular engineering students at Ohio University’s Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology won the Inherent Safety in Design Award at this year’s National Chem-E-Car Competition hosted by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

Held Nov. 7, the student competition kicked off AIChE’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. Thirty student teams from all over the U.S., Puerto Rico and Mexico competed.

Each team designed a car powered entirely by a chemical reaction. Comprising six undergraduate students, Ohio University’s team began working on its car in late 2009. Car designs had to adhere to AIChE’s strict safety regulations.  

Team captain Leesha Blake said Ohio University’s car runs on ammonia electrolysis, a chemical process that produces hydrogen, which is then used to power a hydrogen fuel cell.

To stop the car, the team uses sulfuric acid to dissolve a strip of magnesium, which breaks the electrical circuit that powers the car. Different concentrations of the acid will dissolve the metal at different rates, which enables the team to control the distance the car goes.

Just two hours pre-competition, teams received their requested chemicals and began preparing their solutions. Then, with only one hour before the competition, teams were told how far the cars needed to travel and the load they’d have to carry. The team that came closest to the target won.

“We learned to always have a backup plan for everything,” Blake said, explaining that the rubber seal in the car’s syringe, used in the process to stop the car, broke, causing the car to be disqualified. “It was such a simple thing,” added Blake, a junior.

The actual competition was preceded by a poster presentation session, in which each team presented its design and answered judges’ questions. Teams that achieved a certain score on the poster presentation moved on to compete in the car competition.  

Junior David Ginley said the trip and the competition were eye-opening. “It was a big learning experience just to be in a project like that,” he said.

He and Blake benefited even before attending – their experience on the team gave them an edge when seeking cooperative education assignments last summer. Both students landed positions at Momentiv Performance Materials in Sistersville, West Va.
“Momentiv was impressed that we had been a part of a project that big,” said Blake, who worked in Momentiv’s quality control lab.

Ohio University’s team had qualified for the national competition based on its performance at the North Central Regional Conference, which Ohio University students organized and hosted in April.

Abbey Hackenberg, a senior engineering student and conference committee chair, was invited to present planning strategies at the national meeting – along with students from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley.

“The planning team certainly really earned this trip,” Hackenberg said.

Russ Professor of Chemical and Biomoecular Engineering Gerri Botte advised this year’s Chem-E-Car design team.

Contact: Russ College Director of External Relations Colleen Carow at 740-593-1488 or carow@ohio.edu

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