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Chem-E-Car advances to national competition

After placing fourth in regional competition, student-designed vehicle moves onto a national stage

Ohio University’s Chem-E-Car team will soon be competing on a national stage, following a fourth-place finish in the 2010 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Regional Conference, held April 9-10 at Ohio University. AIChE's national Chem-E-Car competition will take place Nov. 5-8 in Salt Lake City.

Designed by students in the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology, the prize-winning vehicle will be on display May 13 at the Convocation Center during the annual Student Research and Creative Activity Expo. Team members will be on hand to discuss the process and technology behind the four-wheeled victor.

The Chem-E-Car competition is annual and tasks students with building a power source based on a chemical reaction, which will enable a shoe-sized car to carry a certain load and travel a certain distance.  Both the load and the distance are decided on the day of the competition.

“The contest offers students the opportunity to learn a lot,” said the team’s faculty mentor, Gerardine Botte, professor of chemical engineering. “It inspires creativity because they have to come up with the idea; they have to learn how to control a budget; and they learn about teamwork. And this team is amazing.”

The regional competition was a part of the North Central Section Student Regional Meeting on April 9-10. More than 150 students from 29 universities throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and the western part of New York, came to share their technical knowledge, plan for the future, and meet with industry professionals. This is the first time that Ohio University has hosted the regional meeting, but OHIO has participated in the competition since 2006.

“The second time I taught a course on analysis of electrochemical systems, I had the students build a small vehicle,” Botte said. “I offered extra credit if they raced the cars in a competition. We invited children from the schools and had an event.”

With that course, Botte laid the groundwork for the Russ College’s participation in the national Chem-E-Car competition.

This year's team is made up of Leesha Blake, group leader,  David Holmo, David Ginley, Morganna Keith, Ashley Angelo, Brian Bell and Alysia Watson.  Participants range from first-year engineering students, just being introduced to chemical engineering, to the graduate students who are eager to advise the team and offer some assistance.

Graduate student advisor Samy Palaniappan credits the team’s innovative and unique design as an important factor of the win.

“We are the only team in the whole country to use an ammonia electrolytic cell coupled fuel cell to power the car,” Palaniappan said.  “Our advisor, Dr. Botte, deserves all the credit for coming up with this idea to produce hydrogen from the ammonia electrolytic cell at a very low cost, for which she holds the patent.”

The team’s winning car was designed using an ammonia electrolytic cell, which they built in their Russ College. The cell takes power from a copper-zinc battery, which the students made during the competition, and it produces hydrogen. This hydrogen is sent to a fuel cell, which produces enough power to run the car.

The excitement and enthusiasm of her protégés towards her research is flattering to Botte.

“It’s a point of pride for the students,” she said. “Their car is fueled by a technology that no one else’s is. They like to tell people, ‘Our car can be powered by pee.’ It’s very funny.” 

It’s true that ammonia used can be extracted from urine – Botte herself developed the first process to efficiently convert urine into an alternative fuel source using electrochemical techniques.

To stop the car, the team used Mg wire in contact with Sulfuric acid to break the circuit of the car. Different concentrations of the acid were used to meet the time required to break the circuit and stop the car for different distances.

The complex engineering required to build the entire car reminds students that chemical engineering requires flexibility and an open mind.

“The stopping mechanism was difficult to develop,” Botte said. “They had to put a lot of work into it. I think we’re all happy with how it worked.”

Showcasing their work at the upcoming Student Research and Creative Activity expo and looking forward to the national competition are giving the team some much-deserved recognition.

“I feel this [fourth-place finish] was a much-deserved win for the team for all the hard work they put in, sometimes even when it meant working on weekends, staying motivated when things were not going how we expected,” Palaniappan said.  “I should give special credit to Leesha, the leader of the team, for her dedication and sincerity, and to Dr. Botte for being a constant source of ideas and inspiration at all times.”