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Cornell ChemE Car Wins National Competition
November 28, 2008

An 18-member undergraduate student team from Cornell, using a shoebox-size car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, placed first against a field of more than 30 teams at the recent American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) student-car competition held in Philadelphia. The win qualifies the team to participate in the international competition to be held in Montreal next August.

In this competition, students were required to build a car, powered by a chemical reaction and at a cost of $2,000 or less, that could travel a distance of 60 feet within two minutes, while carrying a water payload of 250 milliliters. If those conditions weren’t challenging enough, the car also had to go the required distance and then come to a complete stop using a stopping mechanism which also had to be triggered by a chemical reaction.

The Cornell students designed their stopping mechanism around an iodine-starch mixture, which turns opaque after a certain time depending on the amount of chemicals used. A photosensor detects the change and trips a circuit that shuts off power from the fuel cell to the motor. In an earlier model, the students had burned a strip of magnesium in hydrochloric acid to stop the car. But this method ultimately proved to be too unreliable. With more planning and testing last spring, they came up with the iodine-starch reaction.

In addition to a $2,000 first-place prize and a trophy, the team also earned the “Best Consistency” prize, awarded for the best score based on an average of two runs.

In addition to the funding they receive from the College of Engineering and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, the students plan to put their prize money toward building a second car, this one battery powered.

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