November 11, 2009

Bucknell chemical engineering students prepare their vehicle for competition.

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By Sam Alcorn

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Bucknell University chemical engineers finished in the top third of the national collegiate Chem-E Car Competition held in Nashville this past weekend.

Competing against 31 top colleges and universities from the United States and Puerto Rico, Bucknell's chemical engineering team, captained by Eric Dybeck, Class of '11, had earned an automatic entry in the national competition with a first-place finish at the mid-Atlantic regional race in April.

For the annual contest, collegiate teams design and construct a chemically powered vehicle about the size of a shoebox to carry a specific cargo.

One hour before competing
Competitors learn one hour before the competition what distance their vehicle must travel and the weight of the cargo it has to carry — in this case, 77 feet and 250 milliliters of distilled water — requiring the student teams to exercise their full engineering and chemical prowess to make on-the-fly precision calculations. Each team gets two chances to run their cars, with the final score being their best attempt at meeting the established distance.

"This was one of the most exciting competitions yet," said team advisor Tim Raymond, associate professor of chemical engineering. "It gets more competitive every year and that constantly pushes us to do better. We hope that our almost-completed new chassis will help us improve our vehicle for April's mid-Atlantic competition at Johns Hopkins University."

Using a proton exchange membrane fuel cell to power their four-wheel vehicle, Bucknell's team, including Drew Bundschuh '11, Drew Hackman '11, Jungyun Lin '12, Ashley Magurany '11, Brian Priolo '11 and Brian Smith '10, finished their first run of the day 92 inches short of the 77-foot marker. In the second run, they finished 121 inches short for a combined average of 106.5 inches.

In top third
Their first-run finish was strong enough to put Bucknell in the top third of all finishers.

"We were a bit disappointed because the car had done so much better back on campus during our testing and calibration runs," said Raymond. "The 92 inches was good for the first run. We were in fourth place after the first round, but we should have done better on the second run.  We put more hydrogen into the fuel cell so it should have gone farther and landed closer to the finish line than the first run. But for some reason we haven't yet identified, the car went a shorter distance. This, combined with other teams who improved on their second run, pushed us back from the winners."

The science behind the car: An electrical current is run through two proton exchange membrane fuel cells to produce hydrogen and oxygen. The chemical reaction between the two produces the energy to power the car. The car comes to a stop when a timed limiting agent halts the production of hydrogen.

Future scientists
"It's a lot of fun for the students, but there's also a serious side to this, " said Sean Connolly, spokesman for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers , sponsor of the event at the institute's annual meeting. "These are the scientists of tomorrow who will discover the alternative fuels we need to power our lives. This gets them thinking about alternative fuels early on."

Taking first place, Northeastern University's best run was 6.75 inches from the finish line, while the University of Puerto Rico's best run ended 9 inches away. In third place, Louisiana State University had its best run just 15.5 inches from goal. The teams took home cash prizes of $2,000, $1,000 and $500, respectively.

Northeastern's entry was powered by hydrogen fuel cell stack where gas created on the car is fed to stack producing electric power to turn the wheels. Puerto Rico used a decomposition reaction of hydrogen peroxide and potassium iodide. Louisiana powered its car through an acid-base reaction of citric acid with sodium carbonate.

Non-traditional fuels
Beef liver and beetle enzymes are among the non-traditional fuels used in the past.

In addition to the car competition, Bucknell had nine student posters in the undergraduate student research poster competition.  Jeweliet Yost '10 took second place and Marc Henry '10 first place in their categories.

Yost's poster was titled "Microwave Synthesis of Biocompatible Quantum Dots" and Henry's was titled "Solid-State Fabrication of Polymer Blends: Cryogenic Milling and Solid-State Shear Pulverization."

All told, Bucknell was represented at the Nashville conference by a total of 24 students and eight faculty members.

Contact: Division of Communications