Northeastern wins the regional ChemE Car Competition

Mt. St. Husky in all its glory

Yes­terday I got to visit a chem­ical engi­neering class­room for the first time ever. It reminded me a lot of my old work­place, which was full of home­made reac­tors for syn­the­sizing fullerenes and carbon nan­otubes. I worked in the lab, not the plant, and was always in awe of those enor­mous, high tem­per­a­ture contraptions.

My guide yes­terday was actu­ally a co-​​op stu­dent at that com­pany. We shared a going away party at the end of 2011. But when we worked together, chem­ical engi­neering major Ben Lang­hauser spent his time playing with nan­otubes, whereas I hung out with fullerenes most of my days. I had no idea that the whole time he was with us, he was also plan­ning for the regional ChemE Car Com­pe­ti­tion which took place on the 17th.

Northeastern’s team, which Ben cap­tains this year, took home the awards for best per­for­mance and most cre­ative car. The other stu­dents on the team were Aaron Lam­oureux, Eric Corti, Tom Gillooly, Layal Ismail, Carly Gajewski, David Hurt, Theji Jayarante, and Amy Zhu.

So, if you’re like me (before Ben explained it) and have no clue what a ChemE Car Com­pe­ti­tion is, here’s the deal: Every year there are 9 regional com­pe­ti­tions throughout the country, where stu­dents at var­ious col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties race a chemically-​​powered car they’ve designed and built. The win­ners from each race go on to com­pete in a national com­pe­ti­tion, which will be held in Pitts­burgh this fall.

An hour before the race, the stu­dents learn how far their car must travel and how much extra weight (in water) it must carry. At this year’s North­east Regional Con­fer­ence, which was hosted by the Uni­ver­sity of New Haven, the cars had to get as close to 82 feet as pos­sible while car­rying 300mL of water.

At this year’s com­pe­ti­tion, Ben told me, there were only three designs among the eight teams. Northeastern’s design was one-​​of-​​a-​​kind — hence the most cre­ative award. The car was cre­ated com­pletely from scratch, including ele­ments like a custom-​​made alu­minum chassis, a couple of pres­sure ves­sels con­taining sodium bicar­bonate and acetic acid (baking soda and vinegar), a sole­noid valve, and – my favorite – a 4 cylinder LEGO pneu­matic engine (!!!).

LEFT: The LEGO pneu­matic engine…heck yeah! You thought I was kid­ding, didn’t you!? RIGHT: A close up of the LEGO engine. See those little pieces con­nected to the gold-​​colored axel housing, those are custom-​​made LEGO pieces…I know, I was impressed, too.

As you may remember from ele­men­tary school vol­cano demon­stra­tions, baking soda and vinegar react to form carbon dioxide. One of the two pres­sure ves­sels con­tains a ready-​​made mix­ture of these com­pounds and is pres­sur­ized to 170psi with the gas pro­duced in the reac­tion. “This powers the pneu­matic engine which turns the axle through a pair of timing belts,” Ben explained.

A sep­a­rate pres­sure tank con­tains only baking soda. At the start of the race,vinegar and some amount of water (depending on the dis­tance the car needs to travel) are added to the tank. When the pres­sure in this tank is below 15psi, the sole­noid valve is open. When the pres­sure reaches 15psi, the sole­noid valve closes via a pres­sure switch, causing the motor to stop run­ning and the car to stand still.

Layal Ismail, David Hurt and Ben Lang­hauser, get­ting ready for the race.

To make sure the car would run 82 feet with extra weight, the team had to do a few cal­cu­la­tions before the race. They had to deter­mine how much acetic acid/​water to add in order for the car to travel as close to 82 feet as pos­sible. They did a pretty good job, appar­ently, because the car went only 5.5 feet over (and thank­fully the com­pe­ti­tion doesn’t follow Price Is Right rules). This was the closest of all the cars.

Ben said that being involved with the ChemE car team was not like any old class lab — “It’s totally stu­dent run,” he said, noting that Pro­fessor Courtney Pfluger was always around for advice if they needed it. “We had to come up with the design, we had to figure out how to run it, what tests to run. Basi­cally we had to come up with the exper­i­mental pro­ce­dure.” It gave him expe­ri­ence in things like safety reg­u­la­tions (he had to submit a 50 page safety doc­u­ment before they could par­tic­i­pate), budget man­age­ment and high pres­sure systems.

Here are a couple of videos for your viewing plea­sure. First is the video of Ben’s team win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion, then a video I recorded with my phone of Ben run­ning the car in a Mugar hallway.