Engineering Students Build Chemical Powered Cars

By Sam Phillips

A team of Youngstown State University student engineers plan to compete at the Chem-E-Car regional competition at Miami University.

The national competition occurs every year during the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Teams create vehicles powered solely by chemical reactions. This precludes the use of mechanical stopping devices, including brakes. Judges evaluate the creativity of the car and whether or not it can travel the required length.

Last year’s Youngstown State University Chem-E-Car (pictured) placed 21 out of 34 competitors at the national competition in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Last year, YSU’s team advanced to the national competition and placed 21st out of 34 teams.

Holly Martin, professor of chemical engineering, advises the YSU team. She said teams have to modify at least one component of their car ever year.

“Last year we used an iodine clock, which went from clear to almost black,” Martin said. “This year we’re doing a cinnamaldehyde reaction, which goes from a very light yellow to a completely solid yellow with crystals forming. So that’s our big change is going from basically a liquid reaction to a solid reaction.”

YSU hopes to advance to the nationals this year, which will be held in San Francisco. Bridger Kowalczyk, co-captain of the team, said a slight hardware issue set them back during the last competition.

Martin said participation in this competition benefits chemical engineering students because they learn time management skills.

“This is extracurricular … but there are deadlines you have to meet,” Martin said. “It also benefits them in applying what they learned in class, but in a completely out-of-the-box, wildly-unrelated-to-class type thinking.”

Kowalczyk agreed that success in the competition hinges on time management.

“It takes a lot of research, a lot of time to be in there doing the same thing over and over again; we still have classes, so trying to make time for it is rough,” he said. “Right when you think there can’t be any more, you make time for more. It prepares you for the real world.”

Martin said she hopes it will prepare students for challenges they will face as professional engineers. To that end, the event features a career fair with 300-500 companies, such as Exxon and BP, offering students co-ops, internships and part-time jobs.

“[It’s] the biggest job fair for chemical engineers in the entire nation,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s good networking … The opportunities are here. Take advantage of that.”

Local networks have benefitted the team as well. YSU’s Center for Innovation in Additive Manufacturing provided the car model, and the Youngstown Business Incubator sponsored the team to help make their trips to the competitions possible. Martin said the team wouldn’t exist without community support.

Kowalczyk said he would like to get more people involved and build two cars in the future. Brandon Haldiman, the second co-captain, said even though it’s a chemical engineering competition, they would benefit from having mechanical and electrical engineering students to help build and wire the car.