Chemically Charged: UCI’s Chem E Car Team Takes First at Western Regional Conference

By Savannah Peykani and Jessica Resendez

Photos Courtesy of Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Sara Steinhauser

When the UCI chemical engineering team arrived at UC Riverside to compete in the Regional Chem-E Car Competition last month, they didn’t have the fanciest lab coats or a highly aesthetic vehicle to compete with. In fact, most of what they used to build their car was made out of scrap metal.

Still, their first trial of the day was to make their mechanically engineered car self-drive its way across a designated course, carrying a small bottle of water and stopping precisely near a taped-off finish line 18 meters away. Hours of tests, hundreds of calculations — by the morning of the competition on April 16, first place was all in the formulas. However, when the car malfunctioned and stopped at only eight meters, the team was left heartbroken and confused. What happened?

As members of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE), the team formed six years ago and is currently self-funded, relying on the help of mentor and lab manager Steve Weinstock for guidance and advice (hence the car’s name, SteVIe).

The annual Regional Chem-E Car Competition itself, hosted by AIChE, invites chemical engineers from thirteen different colleges to showcase their vehicles powered by two chemical reactions in a competition that judges their “defined task, quality of their poster presentation and design creativity,” according to the AIChE at Riverside website. The car must carry a weight and travel a precise distance, with both numbers provided to the teams the morning of the competition. For the 2016 Regionals, the cars had to get as close to 18 meters as possible and carry 270 mL of water.

With a starting budget of $500 the team earned from a research stipend, they set out in early June of last year with about 40 people in the group — only five students allowed to operate the car on the day of the competition. Seniors Noah McFerran and Ethan Boado, who helped manage the project, along with Daniel Lapp, knew that if they were ever going to win this year’s competition, it’d be crucial to start recruiting a more diversified team – starting with the recruitment of underclassmen.  

“How far can we push the program?” they asked themselves.

Convincing their peers that it was a great opportunity to apply what they had been learning in class to real life workmanship, they started to reach out to students like second-years Khoi Trinh and Sara Steinhauser, who had no idea how they’d be able to contribute to the team.

“I don’t think I can work with you guys,” said Trinh, “because I don’t feel like I know enough.”

After explaining to him that the project was more of a learning experience, Trinh saw an opportunity to apply his electronic and computer coding skills to benefit SteVIe with a program called Arduino that would later function as the car’s main stopping mechanism.

“He became our specialist, more or less, in programming,” said Boado.  

The team continued convincing and training new recruits, eventually tripling their member base to the 40 members that take part in the team today.

“The whole mentality of ‘Can I actually do this?’ turned into ‘Let’s learn how to do this,’” said Steinhauser. “All the new people were able to learn how to do everything.”

Working day and night, the team created a car that used two innovative chemical reactions: one to start the car and one to stop it. To start, the team decided to go back to square one: the first element on the periodic table, hydrogen.

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Building their own hydrogen pump, which itself was an arduous journey of trying various parts and materials until they could find ones that fit exactly right, they were able to fuel SteVIe enough to get it going. Interestingly, the AIChE guidelines prevent, for safety reasons, generating hydrogen at more than five pounds per square inch (PSI), so, they needed to build a pump to externally produce enough hydrogen to power a reaction strong enough to start the car.

“People from other teams were asking us, ‘What kind of engineering happens at five PSI?’” said Boado, laughing, proud of his team’s ingenuity.

The team also decided to do something different with their car to ensure it stopped at any distance; typically, teams power cars with an iodine clock reaction, which is a simple chemical reaction that requires the combination of just two chemicals. A classic, high school chemistry experiment.

“That’s what like 80 percent of cars use, even for national competitions,” said Boado. “It’s a lack of creativity problem.”

So what could the UCI do to distinguish and challenge itself but still have an effective car, viable for victory? The answer, turns out, was on their TV screens.

If you’ve seen any sort of crime show or movie — “CSI,” “NCIS,” any of these would do — then you have probably seen the post-murder shot of a dark crime scene, literally glowing with evidence. A neon blue glow. Luminol.

Luminol is a chemical that casts a blue glow (called chemiluminescence) when mixed with an oxidizing chemical. The Chem-E team, thinking about these ubiquitous crime shows, thought to combine luminol with hydrogen peroxide to produce the blue. When the blue glow stops, that means the reaction is over.

The next few months meant testing hundreds of different amounts of luminol with hydrogen peroxide, to play with concentrations and see how long the reaction would last, then allowing the car to stop.

Essentially: When the blue glow disappeared, the reaction ended and the car would roll to a stop. They could have hundreds of calculations and formulas stored so that on the day of the competition, when they found out how far the car had to travel, they could quickly deduce how much luminol to mix with how much hydrogen peroxide.

Steinhauser held the key in the form of a syringe that is used to inject the luminol into an Erlenmeyer flask. However, on the day of the competition, she noticed that all of their trials throughout the night before had proven too much for the otherwise resilient piece of plastic. The syringe got stuck. For their first trial at the competition, not all of the luminol made it into the flask, and at eight meters, SteVIe petered out.

Luckily, the competition is a best distance out of two trials sort of competition, so UCI had another shot.

In the hours between trial one and two, the five students worked at un-sticking the syringe. The answer? Aluminum foil, of course. Wrapping the syringe and flask with tin foil ensured that all of the luminol made it into the solution, so the calculations could hold true.

Trial two took off and, at 18.04 meters, SteVIe came to a stop. The UCI Chem-E Car took first place.

 

The underdogs of the competition, UCI’s Chem-E car team is a testament to how much a little hard work and determination can go to achieve a common goal. From the very beginning, they went in with a can-do attitude and pushed themselves to avoid taking no for an answer. How else can you explain their ability to be the only school to unlock the mystery of the luminol-bleach reaction when everyone else said it wasn’t possible?

The thing is, they were a team united, who taught each other valuable lessons in ingenuity and friendship. They talked to each other; they rolled up their sleeves and used their skills to create something completely from scratch. How many of us can say that we built something out of nothing?