Cornell's 'Zoidberg' wins ChemE car competition

Provided/Woojin Kim
The ChemE car, Zoidberg. On the left are the two batteries; in the middle is the circuitry that detects the iodine clock reaction; on the right is the water load required in the competition; and behind everything is the "black box" where the iodine clock reaction occurs.

For the second time in three years, the Cornell Chemical Engineering Car team won the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student car competition, which took place Nov. 7 in Salt Lake City.

The car, which is required to travel a certain distance powered only by chemical reactions, defeated 31 other teams from universities across the United States. The 40-member undergraduate team powered the shoebox-sized car with two homemade, zinc-carbon dry cell batteries made of carbon, manganese dioxide, sodium chloride, water and a zinc canister. This strategy replaced previous cars' power sources, including an aluminum-air battery and a hydrogen fuel cell. Team co-captain Ivan Chua '11 also noted that the car cost a mere $150 to make -- the cheapest among competitors.

"Our car was far from fancy compared to many of the other cars at the competition, and I think most people did not expect us to win," Chua said.

Provided/Woojin Kim
A typical setup to prepare the car. In the foreground are the cells the students made for the competition. Behind it are the chemicals used for the stopping mechanism.

Like in years past, the students learned the competition's parameters about an hour before starting. Their car, named Zoidberg after the character from "Futurama," had to travel 95 feet with a water payload of 250 milliliters. To stop the car, they used an old trick from previous years: an iodine clock, which turns opaque, trips a circuit and cuts power to the motor.

They finished within 20.5 inches of the target. Their closest competitor came within 29 inches.

"We were pretty confident going in there, but we had absolutely no idea we could come in first," said team co-captain Woojin Kim '12. Kim added that the team performed close to 200 calibrations on the vehicle to balance speed versus power to ensure accuracy in the car's performance.

Chua also noted that teamwork and competition experience were crucial to the victory. Their game plan was disrupted early on when they realized they were missing an all-important electrolyte material. Instead of panicking, they split into two groups -- one to search for replacement material, and the other to continue working on the car as if nothing had happened.

"We communicated with one another at every step, and every single member at the competition had a role to play in our win," Chua said.

The students won a trophy and $2,000. They plan to next participate in the Mid-Atlantic Regional contest, which will take place this spring.

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