TU Wins Chemical Car Contest in Scotland; Team Uses Part of Pizza Box To Repair Vehicle

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The University of Tulsa on July 10 won the first international contest for model cars powered only by a chemical reaction.

The TU team prevailed at the competition in Scotland despite travel delayed by hurricanes, airplane malfunctions and the subway bombings in London, and damage to the car during shipping, which forced a student to go dumpster diving to find a replacement part.

Nine teams from seven countries went to the International Chem-E-Car Challenge in Glasgow to see which one of their model cars could come closest to the finish line, 16.5 meters away (about 54 feet), while carrying 375 grams (about 12 ounces) of water. TU’s car, the “Hydrogen Hurricane,” came within 15 centimeters (about six inches) of the line to claim first place, including 1,000 pounds, or about $1,800.Teams were allowed two attempts. TU overshot its first run by 6.9 meters (about 23 feet).

The exact distance and load were not revealed until one hour before the competition, but teams knew that the length would be between 50 and 100 feet and the load would be between 0 and 500 grams. Each team then calibrated its chemical reaction.

Rules require that a car fit in a box about 7 inches tall, 12 inches wide and 16 inches long. Remote control, commercial batteries and mechanical or electronic timers are not allowed.

TU’s car is powered by energy from hydrogen fuel cells that is stored in ultracapacitors and then discharged to a motor through a circuit containing a magnesium strip. The car stops when a hydrochloric acid solution eats through the strip and breaks the circuit.

TU’s vehicle, shipped separately, arrived on the eve of the contest with a damaged foam panel, about 5 inches by 8 inches, which holds and insulates the capacitors. With stores closed, TU junior Taylor Coleman peered into some garbage bins near their hotel and retrieved a cardboard pizza box from which a replacement part was cut. “It was disgusting but it was what we had to do at the time to get the car running,” said Coleman.

The TU team, all chemical engineering majors, also included sophomores Ismail Fahmi and Dorian Marx, junior Michael DeShazer, and Christina Bishop, a May graduate who is an industrial engineer with Michelin in Ardmore, Okla. TU chemical engineering professor Christi Patton, team advisor, also went.

Steven J. Bellovich, dean of the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, says the award “is a testament to the high caliber of the students and faculty in our college. It is very gratifying to see their creativity, initiative and hard work recognized in such a prestigious setting.”

The contest, including teams from the United States, Iran, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, England and Scotland, was held along the River Clyde during the World Congress of Chemical Engineering. The Glasgow competition was open to the top six teams from last year’s Australasian and American finals and to invited teams from the United Kingdom and Europe. In the U.S. national contest in November, TU was first among 31 college teams, winning $2,000.

Patton says these competitions “are wonderful experience for the students largely because they are such a fun way to put their education into practice. And because there’s an actual competition, they take it more seriously than a classroom project.”

Fund raising to help pay for TU’s trip included the sale of T-shirts bearing a phrase the students created and making reference to the university’s founding date: “The University of Tulsa, Out-Nerding the Competition Since 1894.”

Note: A report on TU’s win was broadcast July 17 on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” To hear the story, go to the following NPR address: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4758134