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May 2, 2016 | by Olatunde Soyombo
UL Chem-E-Car Going National

Two teams of University of Louisiana at Lafayette engineering students built chemically-powered cars that received awards in the regional competition sponsored by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers — one of which will now compete at the national level.

This year’s competition was the first time UL Lafayette had the distinction of entering more than one car in the competition, which placed them in an elite group among the 15 other teams from 13 other universities including LSU, Auburn and Georgia Tech. The Cajun Element finished second  and Tic Toc was awarded “Most Creative Design.”

“I’m pretty proud that we were actually able to have two teams that were qualified to run,” said William Chirdon, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical engineering and faculty adviser for AIChE. “Just the qualification is difficult because you have to build a car from scratch and these are chemical engineering students who are working very hard just to take care of their courses, but in their spare time they’re able to design and build a car.

“There’s a tremendous amount of safety protocols you have to go through and they have to prove that their car is actually safe to run. There’s a great emphasis on safety and that’s the reason we’re proud of this program and of our students.”

Requirements for the designs are that the cars’ motion and stopping be powered by chemical reaction. The car that finishes closes to the set distance — after adding water weight — wins.  Competing teams must submit engineering design plans and be approved by AIChE officials for design and materials safety, so merely having a design clear to competition is an accomplishment.

Paulina de la Rosa captained The Cajun Element team to a second place finish, with the car finishing 14 centimeters from the target distance. The Element employed a tested iodine-clock reaction for its braking system. Each team is given two runs, and the Element’s second run improved upon the first and they remained in first place until Georgia Tech’s car finished with a perfect second run right at the target distance. The Cajun Element now moves on to compete at the national competition in San Francisco this fall.

“It’s not about speed; it’s about how accurate you are,” said de la Rosa, 21, a junior chemical engineering major from Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“It’s kind of like ‘practice makes perfect’” is the adage de la Rosa used to describe her team’s participation in the regional, and subsequently national, Chem-E-Car Competition.

Tic Toc, a team co-captained by senior Morganna Ochoa, 25, from San Deigo, and junior Cassie Tilley, 20, of Carencro, eschewed the familiarity of improving previously proven design and pursued a new design, which incorporates Chirdon’s personal research into algae-based power.

Tilley, a chemical engineering and chemistry double major, is part of Chirdon’s research team. Tilley and Ochoa were on the 2015 team, but wanted to try their hands at something new this year.

“We became captains because we wanted something new,” Tilley said.

The pair said that working in concert with engineers of other disciplines and their peers in a team setting prepares them for projects and project management in their careers and the industry.

“Their challenge was they really did come up with a truly innovative design, starting from scratch,” Chirdon said, “whereas the other team built more of a competition car building on what we know, the Tic Toc team really went back to the drawing board.”

“For me, it reminds why I’m doing chemical engineering,” Ochoa said. “Sometimes I feel like I forget– I’m like, ‘oh, great, tests; projects’ and then I finally get to build something and enjoy it with people I really like.  I feel like I’m reminded why I’m doing this.”

Video and photos courtesy of UL Engineering.

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