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Chem-E Car Team Thirsty Turtles

Team Thirsty Turtles at the Chem-E Car mid-Atlantic regional competition. Back row, left to right: Isaac Zaydens, Trae Vanaskey, Yousif Alsaid, David Shoemaker, Nicholas Lepak, Katherine Pohida, and Leonard Pagliaro. Front row, left to right: Amy Nutis, Matthew Ford, and Richard Graver.

Team Thirsty Turtles took fourth place in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) mid-Atlantic regional Chem-E Car Competition, held at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. in April. The top-5 finish earned them a spot at the national competition, to be held at AIChE's annual meeting this fall in San Francisco.

The contest challenges teams of students to design and construct a small, chemically powered model vehicle. The cars must carry a specified cargo over a distance only revealed at the competition, and stop as close to a finish line as possible. Any kind of chemical reaction may be used to power the cars, which are not remote-controlled. Each team must carefully calculate the duration of the reaction required when they are told how far their vehicle must travel. AIChE officials announced a target distance of 20 meters (65.6 feet) and a payload of 200 grams at the finals.

Team Thirsty Turtles' nickel-metal hydride battery-powered car, The Pride of Maryland, traveled 16.81 meters (55.15 feet). The Pride of Maryland was improved and rebuilt for this year's competition. One of the major changes included the switch from a zinc-air battery, which had previously powered the car and its predecessor, Raphael.

"[The new battery] was made [by] extracting the cells from a used Prius battery and soaking them in 6 molar potassium hydroxide solution, which acts as the electrolyte," explains team member and Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) sophomore Yousif Alsaid, adding that the car's electrical system also received an upgrade, a robust circuit that allows the team to control the power that goes to the wheels from the battery via a digital indicator.

The Pride of Maryland's first run.

At first, everything went smoothly, and after its first run, the Thirsty Turtles were in second place, thanks to trial runs that allowed them to accurately predict their required reaction times.

"[We] got a deviation as small as +/- 0.5 seconds for each test, which was pretty amazing," recalls Alsaid. But halfway through its second run, he says, The Pride of Marylandsurprised them. "The car slowed down dramatically, apparently for no reason and stopped short of our first run's distance. We were pretty upset, seeing as all our calculations and tests were spot-on. We eventually passed it off as being due to the unevenness of the floor."

The Pride of Maryland's second run.

On examining the video footage, however, the real culprit was discovered. "The indicator that was supposed to set the power outage to 65% had changed to 60% on its own halfway through the run! This had never happened before in any of our tests in the lab and we suspect it may have been due to the shaking of the car interfering with the internal wiring."

Team Thirsty Turtles calibrating The Pride of Maryland before its second run.

Despite the problem, says Alsaid, "we are very happy with our performance and proud of every member who contributed to securing us a place in the national competition. More importantly, we have learned what does and does not work through days of trial and error that eventually paid off, [and] this is an educational experience above anything else. We have set the bar high and hope to perform even better during nationals!"

Team Thirsty Turtles includes ChBE majors Yousif Alsaid (sophomore), Richard Graver (sophomore), Nicholas Lepak (senior, returning member), Amy Nutis (senior, returning member), Leonard Pagliaro (senior), Katherine Pohida (sophomore), David Shoemaker (sophomore), David "Trae" Vanaskey (sophomore), and Isaac Zaydens (sophomore, returning member); and electrical engineering major Matthew Ford (senior, returning team member). The team is advised by ChBE assistant professor Chunsheng Wang and sponsored by the W.R. Grace Foundation.

For More Information: Visit the Chem-E Car Competition web site at

April 10, 2013

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