Chemical engineering students prepare for the AIChE competition

The American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE), a national organization for both professional engineers and students in chemical engineering programs, will hold its annual Chem-E-Car competition this April. Undergraduate AIChE members from colleges across the northwest will compete for a spot in the national championship in the fall of 2015.

The competition itself requires participants to design a “shoebox car” that will fit, when disassembled, into a box of dimensions 20 centimeters by 30 centimeters by 40 centimeters and can carry between 500 milliliters to 1 liter of water between 15 meters to 30 meters. Cars must be powered by a chemical reaction on board the vehicle and must be adjustable for different distance and weight requirements.

Dr. Russ Carlson is the head of the AIChE chapter at MSU, and serves as an advisor for undergraduates, especially during the design and building of the Chem-E-Car. Carlson noted that while he is an advisor for the student organization, members of AIChE are the ones responsible for running the club themselves.“The students self organize,” he said, he believes that the success of endeavors such as the AIChE competition depends on student motivation and participation. “For these things to be successful, we really need the students to step up,” Carlson said.

Tim Denty, currently in his third year at MSU, was elected chairman of the car project last spring by his fellow members. Denty has worked during the summer and current semester to build a car he hopes will win in April. In the past, MSU has had minimal success in Chem-E-Car competitions. “In the past few years, we haven’t even submitted a car,” Denty said. Carlson believes that the junior in his department has taken the initiative to make the Chem-E-Car a success in 2015. “What it really takes is for a student to step up like Tim has and take the charge to complete the project,” he said of Denty’s work on the car.

Denty was eager to discuss his design. Consisting of a heavy chassis that is moved on wheels by a pneumatic motor, he believes the weight of the car will be an asset, “The plus side to having a car of that weight is that it is immune to added weight [from the water].” The pneumatic motor is powered by tank full of pressurized gas, the product of a sodium iodide and hydrogen peroxide decomposition reaction, which feeds through a regulator into the motor, propelling the car. This tank can safely hold up to 600 pounds per square inch of pressure, and has been hydro-tested to hold up to 1,300 pounds per square inch. The robust tank is the heart of the vehicle, it contains all the energy that will be used to move the vehicle.

Both Denty and Carlson believe that being involved with AIChE and the Chem-E-Car competition benefits those who put in the time and effort to succeed. Denty values the technical skills he gained while building the car for this spring’s competition. “You learn to apply your knowledge in a more tangible way, and I’m really glad I became car chairman because of that,” he said.

For Carlson, putting such a large amount of work into a project such as the Chem-E-Car competition shows motivation among those involved. “It comes down to the students having the drive to put it all together,” he said. While there is still work to do, Denty and Carlson are optimistic for the outcomes of the competition in April. “Next semester we’ll be optimizing the design, filling out some paperwork, submitting the design to nationals, and come April, going to the competition and hopefully winning,” Denty remarked.