by Sharmin Shanur
It was another win for UCI’s Chem-E-Car team. For the second year in a row, the team has qualified for the national Chem-E-Car competition hosted by the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChe). This is no easy feat, considering that in order to qualify, they needed to compete in the annual Chem-E Car Western Region competition and go against 13 other West Coast universities such as UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley. As a matter of fact, at the regional competition, UCI’s Chem-E-Car team placed first, topping UCLA (which came second) and USC (which came third).
Sara Steinhauser, a third-year chemical engineering major as well as Chem-E-Car’s project manager, could not hold back her sheer excitement. “This is great!” she exclaimed. “We practiced and worked really hard to get here.”
With undergraduate students making up the bulk of the team, UCI’s Chem-E-Car team is not only exceptional, but they also have a sense of youthful ingenuity. This ingenuity allows them to think of novel ways to build their cars or create chemical reactions to fuel their engines. This year, with a first place win for both the on-track and poster portion of the competitions, their cars stood out from the crowd because not only were they able to complete the tasks enumerated by the AIChe, but they were also able to impress the judges with a chemical reaction the competition had not seen before.
For the car that received first place in the poster portion of the competition, the novel chemical reaction was a luminol and bleach chemiluminescence reaction. This chemical reaction was essentially the stopping mechanism of the car. To put this in layman’s terms, the Chem-E-Car needed to create a starting mechanism, which was a Zinc-air battery, so the car would start, and they also needed to create a stopping mechanisms, which is basically a chemical reaction that would stop the car. Now, this might sound easy to an outsider, but in fact it is not. The proportion of the chemicals needed to create the stopping reaction needs to be proportional to the distance the car is traveling. If too much or too little of one chemical is used, the car might stop short of the line.
AIChe does not tell the contestants the distance the car must travel until one hour before the competition, so the participants need to create the proportions on the spot.
Daniel Lapp, a fourth-year chemical engineering major, noted that “in order for the car to travel the distance of the track [at the competition], we need to practice creating stopping reactions for different distances here on campus. The more work we put in, the more data we have and that is what will differentiate us from other teams.”
Lapp was not lying about the amount of work this takes. Many of the group members shared that, at times, they would stay in the lab until 4 a.m. practicing and creating different chemical reactions for the stopping and starting mechanisms. For them, 10 hours of work per week is the least amount of time a member usually puts into the team.
The car that won the on-track portion of the competition was named Model S. This car had a different starting and stopping mechanism from Steve-O, which won the poster portion of the competition. Its starting mechanism was a hydrogen fuel cell, and its stopping mechanism was a sodium thiosulfate-and-hydrochloric acid reaction.
As Steinhauser explained, the mechanism behind this car, she noted that every single member of the group was needed to put together that car and to make it work.
“Without group work,” she noted, “this would not have been possible.”
The camaraderie of this group permeates each individual member. They truly care about each other and their common goal has made them one cohesive unit. Unfortunately, camaraderie is not the only characteristic that will help this team win the national competition that is coming in just a few months. They also need to work hard, and that is exactly what they are currently doing. With one more win under their belt, UCI’s Chem-E-Car team is not letting ego get in the way of winning the nationals. They have already started forming ideas and chemical reactions for their next car in anticipation of, hopefully, another win.