November 04, 2011

Bucknell's Chem-E car in action. Photo courtesy of AIChE

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. - With a beef liver, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a food processor, a team of Bucknell engineers found a novel way to start and stop a shoebox-sized car - garnering a top honor in a national competition.

The team, which included 11 chemical engineering majors, won the prize for "best use of a biological reaction" in the 13th annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers Chem-E Car Competition, Oct. 16 in Minneapolis.

"The Bucknell team was intentionally trying to create a biological reaction," said Tim Raymond, an associate professor of chemical engineering and the team advisor. "They put liquefied beef liver in a container and added hydrogen peroxide. It's kind of like putting it in a wound. The oxygen produces a gas and expands in a syringe, which moves backward until it flips a switch to turn off the car."

National conference
Part of an annual student conference, the Chem-E Car Competition is designed as a fun and practical way for students to apply their knowledge of chemical engineering principles while gaining knowledge of alternative fuels, according to the contest organizers. This year, 31 teams competed.

"With a growing interest in real-world applications of alternative fuels worldwide, it's more important than ever for college students to learn out chemical reactions that can move vehicles," said June Wispelwey, AIChE's executive director. "The competition showcases both the importance of innovation and the relevance of science, technology and math education in the United States."

The student engineers are challenged not only to find new ways to power small vehicles but also to propel their cars a certain distance while carrying a certain weight and cargo. The teams are not, however, given the specific distance or weight until an hour before the contest. This year, they were given two chances to transport 350 milliliters of water about 68 feet.

Creativity counts
The University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez came the closest to the mark with a car powered by pneumatic pressure that used a color-changing reaction to stop. The University of California-Davis placed second, with a car powered by an aluminum air battery with an iodine clock stopping mechanism; and Missouri University of Science & Technology placed third with their "Chem-E-Boat." Texas Tech received the Inherent Safety in Design Award for a car powered by a cell battery. || See full list of winners and video.

Bucknell's car, "Bessie," placed 13th overall and received recognition for creativity for the use of bovine liver, winning a trophy and $1,000. In past competitions, the team has placed second, fifth or eighth.

The Bucknell team, which includes juniors Megan Wilson, Laura Duffy, Bridget Bozel, Chris Porter, Scott Watza and Mark Paleafico; senior Amanda Britton; and sophomores Kat Wiley, Amanda Ruppert, Jayne Beckmann and Alyssa Whittington, qualified to compete by placing in a regional competition at Pennsylvania State University last spring. Next, they will modify their car for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference in April 2012 in New York City.   

Novel stopping mechanism
Sponsored by Air Products and Chemicals Inc. of Allentown, Pa., the Bucknell car was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which takes oxygen from the air, combines it with pure hydrogen and creates power, Wilson said.

"We ground up the liver in a food processor, poured it into a bottle and injected the bottle with hydrogen peroxide," Wilson said. "There is an enzyme in the liver that speeds up decomposition. The hydrogen peroxide turns to oxygen, gas and water. We collected the oxygen gas in a syringe. As the plunger expands, it hits a button to the wiring of the car."

It was the first time beef liver was used to create a biological reaction in the national competition, Wilson said, adding that the material is more environmentally friendly and safer than other materials.

"A lot of car competitors use pretty intense chemicals," Wilson said. "We were able to get everything we needed at a grocery store."

Real-world learning
The competition provided the team with the opportunity to apply what they had learned in the classroom and to learn how to trouble-shoot under a tight deadline, Wilson said.

"It required a lot of creativity and innovation to figure out how to make this biological reaction work to stop the car," she said. "It gave us a chance to try ideas and to see what would work well and what would not work."

Students recognized at conference
In addition to the Chem-E car team, nine other Bucknell chemical engineering majors traveled to Minneapolis to participate in 2011 Annual Student Conference, attending career planning workshops, a graduate school fair and a research poster competition. Thirteen students presented research posters in several categories, some winning awards, They were: junior Steven Brouse, second place for Material Enginering and Sciences; senior Damon Vinciguerra, second place for Food, Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology; and junior Masha Zhdanova and senior Katie Coney, second place and honorable mention, respectively, for the environmental category.

Beckmann and Porter, from the Chem-E car team, also received the Freshman Recognition Award and the Donald F. Othmer Sophomore Academic Excellence Award, respectively. For the third year, Bucknell's student chapter also was honored with one of the 15 Outstanding Student Chapter Awards out of more than 150 chapters nationwide for showing an exceptional level of participation, enthusiasm, program quality, professionalism and involvement in the university and community.

Contact: Division of Communications

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