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Unique car competition runs on chemical reactions

By John Hollenhorst | Posted - Nov. 7, 2010 at 7:17 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY -- College teams from across the country came together at the Salt Palace Convention Center Sunday for a unique chemical engineering competition.

It's the kickoff to the annual meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. At this competition, lab coats replaced athletic uniforms.

A big, enthusiastic crowd gathered to cheer on the thirty-one teams, including one from the University of Utah, as they fought it out for supremacy in a contest where everything you put into the game has to fit in an oversize shoe box.


It teaches them to innovate. It teaches them to be creative. Those young people are the future.

–Maria Burka


"It teaches them to innovate. It teaches them to be creative," said Maria Burka, president-elect of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. "Those young people are the future."

Competitors used tiny vehicles powered by various chemical reactions.

"It's fueled by a hydrogen cell and then our chemical reaction actually stops the car," said University of Utah student Michael Day.

The winner is not the one that goes fastest or farthest, but which stops itself closest to the finish line after traveling 95 feet.

"The rules are they don't find out what it is, how far they have to go and how much they have to carry until the last minute," Burka said.

In the first round, the University of Utah team seemed to have one of the best entries. It runs on a hydrogen-fuel cell. Unfortunately as it was approaching the finish line, disaster struck. A wheel came off and the vehicle stopped 214 inches short.

That left some wondering if maybe the team needed an automotive engineer.

"We're great with the chemicals in the chemical engineering department, but when it comes to the manufacturing, we could use some help I think," said student Ray King.

Day remained optimistic though. "I think without the wheel coming off we would have had it right on," he said.

The winner from Cornell University stopped 20 inches from the finish. Utah landed in 12th place out of 31. But they beat two teams from Texas, a slight compensation for Saturday's shellacking by TCU on the football field.

"I hope it brings up some spirit somewhere," King said.

The hope is that someday one of these engineers will make a breakthrough in alternative fuels and make life better for everybody.

E-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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John Hollenhorst

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