Chemical engineering students from universities across the Midwest descended upon Manhattan socialize and compete in the regional research, ChemE Jeopardy and the Chem-E-Car poster and performance competitions, at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Mid-America Student Regional Conference, hosted at K-State for the first time in over 10 years, April 1–3.
The conference was hosted by students from the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Department of Hospitality Management, David Madden, senior in chemical engineering, captain of K-State’s Chem-E-Car team and regional conference chair, said.
“We are trying to become a top 50 public institution for research,” Madden said. “In order to reach that goal, we really have to promote research at K-State. This conference was over 200 people that we were able to bring and get interested in research as well as share their ideas of research from other universities here.”
The conference was also an opportunity for the College of Engineering to show other schools what K-State has to offer, Keith Hohn, professor of chemical engineering, said.
“We have great students that do great things,” Hohn said. “They put on this wonderful conference and came in first and third in the Chem-E-Car competition, which really shows that K-State has a lot to offer, and our students are good.”
The distance Chem-E-Car teams were challenged to run their cars was 66 feet, and the weight of water their cars were required to carry while doing so was 380 milliliters.
Chem-E-Car, the short name of the Chemical Engineering Car Student Design Competition, is a game of engineering precision. Student teams from universities across the U.S. and the world compete by building autonomous vehicles generally around 1 foot in length that are powered by and stop due to chemical reactions, according to the competition rules posted on AIChE’s website.
Teams do not learn the predetermined distance their cars must travel or weight they must carry until immediately before the competition, when they must calibrate their designs to the specified distance and weight. The car that stops closest to the predetermined line wins.
The K-State pressure car subteam, whose vehicle is dubbed the “Bill Snyder Family Chem-E-Car 2.0,” achieved that feat for the second year in a row, defeating 12 other teams in the best-of-two-runs regional Chem-E-Car competition on their home turf Saturday morning in Ahearn Field House.
“It feels fantastic, especially being part of this car from the very beginning before last year, when we had a lot of failures,” Brian Everhart, junior in chemical engineering and K-State pressure car team leader, said.
Everhart said he has been working on designing and optimizing the Bill Snyder Family Chem-E-Car 2.0 car for three years.
“This car has had a lot of troubles, and to be able to overcome them and to be able to go to nationals is incredible,” Everhart said.
The car is powered by a reaction that produces enough carbon dioxide pressure to drive a reciprocating piston back and forth, Everhart said. Two years ago, when Everhart and several other students first conceptualized what would become the Bill Snyder Family Chem-E-Car 2.0, the car tore itself in half twice during testing, and only travelled 5 feet at the competition.
Last year, however, after modifying the car, the team took first place at regionals at the University of Kansas. After leading the competition following the first run, the team dropped to second place when another team’s car stopped closer to the line in the second round. Running last, the Bill Snyder Family Chem-E-Car 2.0 passed the line and its competitor’s mark, but then rolled backward due to the reciprocating piston to stop within several inches of the line and reclaim first place, according to Everhart.
This year’s victory was not as dramatic, but nonetheless still sweet, Everhart said.
“‘If we’re going to do this, I want to see it all the way through,’” Everhart said he thought to himself two years ago. “And now being able to see it all the way through to now go to nationals for the second-straight year is very rewarding.”
The K-State Chem-E-Car team’s other car, dubbed the “K-State Model S: Snyder,” is in the midst of that journey right now, Everhart said. The car is powered by 10 zinc-carbon batteries assembled in film canisters. The car stops when a column of pressure pushes water away from two electrical contacts, breaking the circuit.
Last year, the newly-designed car was not ready for competition. This year, the battery-powered car emerged in first place after the first run Saturday, according to Katie McWilliams, sophomore in chemical engineering. In the second run, however, the car did not move from the starting line, but the car’s performance in the first run was good enough for third place overall.
“An issue will pop up that we didn’t even know would be an issue,” McWilliams said.
McWilliams said she blamed a faulty electrical connection between batteries, which the team has combatted all year and hopes to improve in future iterations.
“Third place is not bad, and we got first place in the poster presentation, which is really, really not bad,” McWilliams said.
The K-State battery car team won the Chem-E-Car poster competition—K-State’s fifth-straight win in a row—in which they presented their design and how their car operates to judges. K-State’s two cars combined took home five of the nine awards in the performance (first and third), poster presentation (first and third) and best design (third) Chem-E-Car competition categories.
Challenges abounded for all teams competing in the regional Chem-E-Car competition this year, as only three cars made it off the starting line in the first run—a disproportionately low percentage compared to previous competitions, according to Madden, due to teams getting very creative with their car designs this year.
“We did see a lot of very new designs, and so people were starting to go away from maybe the standard iodine stopping mechanism,” Madden said. “The amount of creativity that was put into these cars was really good, but with creativity sometimes you don’t get consistency.”
Chem-E-Car teams spend the academic year leading up to the regional competition designing, building and optimizing their cars to prepare them for competition. In Chem-E-Car, aspiring engineers, including more than just chemical engineers, learn much about how engineering in the real world works through trial and error in finding creative solutions to problems that arise, according to Michelle Ampuero, junior in chemical engineering at Iowa State University and leader of ISU’s Gengar Gang car, which achieved second place.
“Engineers, when you boil it down, we solve problems,” Ampuero said. “That’s what we do. We troubleshoot, we problem-solve, we have to think really critically about things. That’s what Chem-E-Car is. It will present you with a whole host of problems, problems you didn’t even think you would have to encounter. And you just have to figure out how to solve them in unique and interesting ways.”
Madden said the team aspect of Chem-E-Car is also formative.
“When you work in industry, you’re not going to be working by yourself, but with a team,” Madden said. “(Chem-E-Car) really simulates that well, because you’re in a team, and you have a goal that’s not typically clearly defined, but you have to get results and you have to follow deadlines.”
Ampuero said the Iowa State Chem-E-Car team shares a similar story to that of the K-State pressure car team. The team was restarted after a hiatus only three years ago. Two years ago at their first regional competition, the team received the Golden Trash Can award for their creative car design that in reality did not work. After years of work, the fledgling team has rapidly improved, finishing sixth last year, and this year finishing second and qualifying for the national competition to be held in San Francisco in November.
“This semester we’ve been meeting four or five times a week,” Ampuero said. “We really threw ourselves at it. … We’ve put a lot of hours into it, and it is very much a labor of love. … All the blood, sweat and tears have come down to this.”
In the end, Ampuero said, the challenges competitors must overcome and the seemingly endless technical problems teams must solve, mold and shape them into better engineers who can think critically, communicate effectively, work efficiently with a team, design safely and use those skills to change the world for the better.
“I’m so glad we started it at Iowa State three years ago when I was a freshman, because I don’t think I would be the engineer that I am now,” Ampuero said.