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Chemically powered car propels engineering students into international competition

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A tiny car powered by chemical reactions will take some UL Lafayette students to Minnesota.

Engineering majors who design and operate a shoebox-sized Chem-E-Car dubbed “pHat Tuesday” will pit their model against competitors from the U.S. and other countries.

The international competition will be held during the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student conference Oct. 27-30 in Minneapolis. UL Lafayette students earned a spot in the contest by placing first in the AIChE southern regional conference earlier this month in Knoxville, Tenn.

The win came against Chem-E-Cars built by students from 14 other schools, including LSU, Auburn, Florida and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

High finishes are becoming routine for UL Lafayette’s student-designed “auto,” which is powered by a lead battery and stops via a chemical reaction. It earned second place in regional competition last year, and first place in 2015.

Chem-E-Cars must transport a payload of water across a set distance. Students learn the length of the course and the amount of “cargo” their car will be required to carry only an hour before the competition.

Students must then quickly determine the proper calculations needed to power the car, and stop it as close to a finish line as possible, without a remote control or timed braking mechanism.

Students must adhere to safety rules outlined in an 80-page rulebook, give face-to-face interviews with professors and industry professionals, and build a car that will stand up to rigorous inspections that, if failed, bump them from competition.

Stringent safety rules mean competitors often have to make modifications to their cars “on the fly,” said Chaz Russo, a junior from Berwick, La., majoring in mechanical engineering. Russo is a co-captain of the pHat Tuesday team.

“I had to cut apart a little box in the hotel room the day before the competition for cardboard to cover our motor with because it was exposed. That’s a safety issue I wasn’t aware of until someone pointed it out,” Russo said.

Based on the success of the original Chem-E-Car, which was launched in 2010, and increased student interest in the project, engineering students have designed and built a second Chem-E-Car, called “Al-Air-Gator.”

The new car is powered by an aluminum-air battery, which runs when aluminum and oxygen react. A lead-acid battery, on the other hand, uses lead oxides and sulfuric acids to create electrochemical reactions that power the car.

Working with each power source benefits students, who learn about different equipment and processes, according to Dr. William Chirdon, an associate professor of chemical engineering who advises the AIChE chapter, and mentors the pHat Tuesday team.

“The aluminum-air battery uses far less hazardous chemicals, and is more eco-friendly. Working with a lead battery, which is similar to one in an automobile, illustrates how our students are able to responsibly handle potentially hazardous substances appropriately,” he said.

Cassie Tilley, a junior majoring in chemical engineering and in chemistry from Carencro, La., leads the “Al-Air-Gator” team. She expects, as with the original Chem-E-Car, that once students have a few competitions to test and perfect the new car, they will have another winner – and another way for students to learn skills needed for the workplace.

“Having another version will enable us to incorporate some new ideas,” Tilley explained.

Student members of the pHat Tuesday team include: Chaz Russo (co-captain), a junior majoring in mechanical engineering from Berwick, La.; Karl Ashkar (co-captain), a senior majoring in chemical engineering from Lafayette; Lance Collazos, a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Lafayette; Christopher Connel, a senior majoring in electrical engineering from Thibodaux, La.; Paulina DeLarosa, a senior majoring in chemical engineering from New Iberia, La.; and Jacob Templet, a junior majoring in chemical engineering from LaPlace, La.

Student members of the Al-Air-Gator team include: Cassie Tilley (co-captain), a junior majoring in chemical engineering and in chemistry from Carencro, La.; Richard Hessler Jr., a junior majoring in chemical engineering and in chemistry from Opelousas, La.; Tyler Lege (co-captain), a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Abbeville, La.; Dylan Adams, a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Houma, La.; Tyler Benjamin, a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Lafayette; Cody Broussard, a junior majoring in electrical engineering from Meaux, La.; Katherine Hutton, a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Metairie, La.; Kayla Richard, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering from Mandeville, La.; Natalie Rome, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering and in chemistry from Kenner, La.; Erik Smith, a junior majoring in petroleum engineering from Goode, Va.; and Josh Worley, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering from Gonzales, La. Faculty advisor for the team is Dr. Ramalingam Subramanian, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Photo: Christopher Connel, a senior majoring in electrical engineering from Thibodaux, La., makes adjustments to components for the College of Engineering’s tiny, chemically powered car named “pHat Tuesday.”

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