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Lehigh team ready for national ChemE competition

A large contingent of faculty researchers and graduate students will represent Lehigh in this year’s American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) annual meeting, set for mid-November in Philadelphia.

Not to be outdone, however, Lehigh’s undergraduate ranks are ready to drive some AIChE excitement of their own.

Earlier this year, 12 students—including seniors in the chemical and mechanical engineering departments and first-year engineering and science students—participated in the Mid-Atlantic regional Chem-E-Car competition at Manhattan College in New York City. The contest, hosted by AIChE, leads up to a national competition at AIChE’s annual event. Lehigh took fifth in the region, qualifying for the national level.


Lehigh team members Phil Hume, Brian Koenig, Mike Stern, and Mike Swarr (l to r) at the Chem-E-Car regionals



The Mid-Atlantic region boasts some of the toughest competition anywhere in the nation, including 2007 national champion Cooper Union and second-place finisher Carnegie Mellon, as well as SUNY Buffalo, Rowan, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, and Bucknell.

This year, Lehigh sent two teams to New York City with fuel cell-powered cars. The teams placed fifth and sixth, and have combined forces to compete at nationals.

Creating a car

The rules are deceptively simple: guidelines limit a car’s size (smaller than a shoebox), the amount and type of chemicals used and how they are secured, and the time allowed for the run. Cars must begin runs with all fuel on board, and are not allowed any sort of mechanical braking device—they must stop by using up their fuel.

Perhaps this sounds like a relatively simple task for engineers to tackle, however, there’s a catch: teams are not told how long the track until they arrive at the competition, so they must design their cars to be easily tuned to conform to these crucial variables.

Lehigh’s car uses hydrogen to power the motor. The motor, in turn, turns the axle that moves the car.

The fuel cell was a good choice for a variety of reasons. “Our group, comprised of all freshmen, had previously spent time working with the fuel cells in an introductory engineering course during first semester,” says Drew Scheirer ’11.

“I think that we all saw the benefits in using hydrogen: even though the cell was a little expensive, the fuel was really efficient,” adds Italo Mendonca,’11. “But, the main reason for me was the fact that it doesn't emit any harmful components to the atmosphere. In today's world, that's something that can't be ignored.”

The senior team participated in last year’s competition as well.“Previous attempts using a battery proved to be unreliable and used unsafe chemicals,” says Mike Stern ’08. Both problems were eliminated with the use of hydrogen fuel.”

A basic hydrogen fuel cell works like this: hydrogen in the anode is stored at atmospheric pressure, while the oxygen in the cathode is taken directly from the air. Hydrogen is separated into positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons through the use of a catalyst, in this case, platinum. Electrons from this reaction must travel through a circuit to power the motor, which turns the car’s axle, before they arrive in the cathode where they react with oxygen and form the vehicle’s sole waste product—water.

“We ran many trials at Lehigh and came up with a ‘best fit curve’ for relating the distance the car traveled to the amount of hydrogen used. We had best fit curves for various weights because we also wouldn't find out how much weight was actually going to be attached until the day of the competition,” explains Mendonca.

The teams ran test after test to find the correct amount of fuel to move their cars the required distance. “The whole project is about trial and error,” says Brian Koenig ‘08. “The process of going from ideas on paper to an actual component of the car was a lot more complex than any of us thought it would be.”

While traveling an exact distance is a crucial element of the competition, the cars must also complete their mission in less than two minutes. Time begins when the reaction starts, and only ends once the car has finished moving.

"Competitiveness in the air"

After spending months agonizing over the design of the car, the competition arena brings new challenges and occasions for alterations. Says Koenig, “We spent the day of the regional competition making last minute adjustments to accommodate the smoothness of Manhattan’s gym floor track.”

Luckily, the Lehigh teams functioned well and were able to work efficiently. “The interaction between our group members was great, so the time we spent working on the project was enjoyable,” Scheirer says.

“I personally felt divided between competitiveness and the spirit of fellowship,” remembers Mendonca. “There was definitely competitiveness in the air—after all, we all wanted to win and everyone there worked really hard. At the same time, it was evident that the teams cheered each other on, so I also had the feeling that we were all there together having fun with the work that we did.”

In the end, the students were able to spend a little time interacting and sharing their experiences with their peers from other schools. “The competition was a load of fun,” says Deniz Pamukcu ‘11. “We learned a great deal from talking with the other teams and gathered a few ideas we may use when we go back next year.”

So what will stick with them the most from their experience at regionals? “The most memorable part of the project was staying in the unit operations lab really late trying to get the car working perfectly the night before the competition,” recalls Stern.

And as the fall semester begins, the Lehigh team is back in the lab, fine-tuning its car for nationals in November.

The students and their advisor involved in the project are:

Phillip Hume ’08 (chemical engineering), Brian Koenig ’08 (chemical engineering), Mike Stern ’08 (chemical engineering), Mike Swarr ’08 (chemical engineering), Matt Schaner ’08 (mechanical engineering), Matt Melillo ’11 (engineering), Italo Mendonca ’11 (chemical engineering), Brittany O’Brian ’11 (political science), Deniz Pamukcu ’11 (engineering), Andrew Scheirer ’11 (engineering), Jeremy Schieferstein ’11, (engineering), Brian Wyvratt ’11 (chemical engineer), Ehsan Anwar ’11, (engineering), and Dr. Cesar Silebi (chemical engineering), faculty advisor.

—Christine Rapp


Posted on Wednesday, September 03, 2008

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