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Engineering Students Claim Third Place in National Chem-E-Car Competition

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Melanie Ziems
Chem-E-Car Team
Chem-E-Car Team

It took more than a thousand hours and a few trips back to the drawing board, but the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering’s Chem-E-Car competition team’s hard work paid off earlier this month when they clinched third place  overall at the annual national Chem-E-Car competition.  This is the highest UH has ranked in the 15 years the competition has taken place.

The Chem-E-Car competition is sponsored annually by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Teams must construct a car powered solely through chemical reactions that can haul a certain load several meters. However, the specific load and distance are not known until the competition day. Teams who qualify in the regional competition held in March advance to the national competition at the annual AIChE Student Conference, which was held in San Francisco this year. For this year’s competition, cars hauled 250 milliliters of water over a distance of 17 meters. Teams were given two opportunities to come as close as possible to the finish line. The UH team’s winning run landed 13 centimeters from the finish line.

The UH Chem-E-Car team is composed of Team Lead Rishabh Mahajan and team members Abraham Aboiralor, Paul Abraham An Dinh, Ed McDowell and Yen Nhi Nguyen. Paul Abraham will take on the role of Team Lead for the 2014 competition.

The team was also named Most Consistent by the judging panel – perhaps an even more meaningful title than their overall ranking to Abraham. “It means [our success] is not a fluke,” he said. While other teams had vastly differing runs – the 1st place team came within 3 centimeters on their first run, but overshot the finish line by so much on their second run that their car hit the wall –  the UH team came within centimeters of the finish line on both runs.

The UH’s Chem-E-Car, named “Shasta 6,” runs off of the pressure produced by the catalyzed decomposition of hydrogen peroxide when introduced to manganese dioxide. The decomposition produces water and oxygen, and when the oxygen builds up in the tank, the pressure starts the engine. An iodine clock reaction measured by an LED light and LDR sensor stops the car.

Third place comes with a $500 prize, which Mahajan says will go toward “helping the team expand,” including purchasing new tools and materials to be used for next year’s car. The team’s faculty advisor, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Manolis Doxastakis, said this result builds on recent successes of the UH AIChE chapter, including a fifth-place finish in last year’s national Chem-E car competition and hosting a successful AIChE regional conference last year.  “I am very proud of our chapter's success in the national competition...All the credit belongs to our students. They consistently show us that motivation and teamwork leads to national recognition,” Doxastakis said.

As for the team, Mahajan said he is proud that they were able to demonstrate the quality of their UH education. “This competition is one of the only ways to showcase our talent and tell people all across the country how good we are at what we do. This puts UH in the national spotlight, and this was the only aim I started out with when I took over as Team Lead last year,” he said. “I believe it is a monumental achievement for not just the students, but also the department of chemical engineering and the university as a whole.”

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