Team Thirsty Turtles Wins Chem-E Car Regional Championship

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Team Thirsty Turtles at the Chem-E Car competition at Penn State in April 2011. Left to right: Bob Latimer (junior, Mechanical Engineering, back row), Kevin Bates (junior, ChBE, front row), Lucas Hedinger (junior, Electrical and Computer Engineering), Adam Gradzki (junior, ChBE), and Sandhya Patel (junior, ChBE). Not pictured: John Weston Breda (junior, ChBE), Whitney Hollinshead (junior, ChBE), Leslie Mok (junior, ChBE), and Brett Koller (junior, ChBE).

Team Thirsty Turtles, a group primarily composed of Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) undergraduates and advised by ChBE assistant professor Chunsheng Wang, took first place at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) mid-Atlantic Regional Conference's Chem-E Car Competition, earning them a spot in the finals at the organization's national meeting this fall.

The contest challenges each team to design and construct a small, chemically powered model vehicle, capable of carrying a cargo of 350 ml of water over a distance only revealed at the competition, and stopping as close to a finish line as possible. Any kind of chemical reaction may be used to power the cars, which are not remote-controlled. Each team must carefully calculate the duration of the reaction required when they are told how far their vehicle must travel. This year the target distance was 60 feet. Team Thirsty Turtle's car, Raphael, traveled 60 feet, 11 inches.

The team and its faculty advisors confessed they were surprised—though certainly not disappointed—by the win.

"This was the first time this particular team has competed, and the first team Chunsheng Wang has coached for the Clark School," explains ChBE professor and chair Sheryl Ehrman. "[They] went up against much more experienced teams from [top] engineering programs, and competed with amazing success."

The competition was judged on a combined score, for both traveling the correct distance, and for creativity, an area in which ChBE junior Weston Breda feels they had a particular edge.

"I was proud of us for being more original than many of the other teams," he says. "When we got there we were looking around and it seemed like a lot of other teams bought commercial, off-the-shelf stuff for their cars. All of our stuff was completely custom—the battery, the circuitry, and the structure."

One of those custom components, the battery, caused them some sleepless nights right up to the competition, explains ChBE junior Kevin Bates. "The night before [the competition] at 3 a.m. we finally got it running down the hall! We're working with a zinc-air battery, which involves a plate of zinc metal sitting on top of a liquid sodium hydroxide solution that you have to keep from leaking all over the place. We had to learn how to work with gaskets and liquid electrical tape, and how to seal up air membranes. We went through a lot of redesigns to get something relatively leak-proof."

The students said they spent a lot of time on the project and are thrilled with their accomplishment. "Seeing six months of hard work and dedication pay off as our car stopped inches away from the finish line was a moment I will never forget," says ChBE junior Sandhya Patel. "As a brand new team, we were proud to simply make it to the regionals with a finished product and wanted to give it our best shot. We are very excited to have come out with first place our first time ever competing. Nationals, here we come!" 

Story adapted from the original by Arlette Philogene, UM Newsdesk.

Published May 9, 2011