By Neale McDevitt
It was a script that would have made Rocky Balboa proud. In just its second year of competition, the McGill Chem-E Car team defied all odds to tie for first place at the recent national championships in Salt Lake City, Utah. The McGill squad beat out 35-team field – including competitors from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Qatar – to finish tied for top spot with perennial powerhouse and three-time champion, Cornell.
“It was unreal. I’m still smiling,” said Ali Sahmoud, captain of the McGill Chem-E Car Nationals Team.
The Chem-E Car competition is an undergraduate design competition hosted by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in which teams of engineers from universities from across North America and around the world design and build small cars – ranging in size from shoeboxes to fire hydrants – powered and stopped exclusively by chemical reactions. The primary objective of the competition is performance – each car must carry a weight between 0 and 500 grams over a precise distance between 15 and 30 meters. The designs and fuel choices showcase the teams’ creativity and innovation.
“The Chem-E Car competition is a great avenue for students to apply chemical engineering principles in a creative way and in a group setting, they are critically important skills for these young professionals to have as they begin their journeys in the industry,” said Cheryl Teich, AIChE President.
An hour before the competition, the students are told the load of water their car must carry and the distance it must travel. The students then must calculate the appropriate chemical reaction that will propel the car as close as possible to the distance goal. This year, the cars had to carry 230 millilitres of water for 20.3 meters.
If football is a game of inches, then alternative fuel car competition is a game of centimeters – as was proven in Salt Lake City. “Our car [called Navona, after team sponsor, Pizza Navona] and Cornell’s car came within five centimetres of the finish line,” said Sahmoud. “It was the first time in the competition’s 17-year history that there was a tie for first place.”
What made the McGill team’s victory even more remarkable was how the team bounced back from a disappointing first round.
“In the first run we were 4.16 metres away from the finish line – not even in the top 10. We made some mistakes,” said Sahmoud. “We stop testing our car half an hour before our run so the chemical properties changed. Whatever we tested didn’t happen during the run and our car stopped earlier than anticipated.”
Undaunted, the McGill team did what engineers do best – they adapted and overcame. Cue Eye of the Tiger.
“We made some corrections – including with the speed. Then we had to recalculate everything,” said Sahmoud. “Most importantly, we learned from our mistakes in the first round and kept testing right up until one minute before our run.”
And that run was as epic – or as epic as can be involving a car that can fit in a breadbox and travels at strolling speed. In a video of the gold-medal run, another member of the McGill team can be heard saying “Come on, don’t fail us,” off camera as Navona creeps down the floor.
When the car stops just five centimetres from the finishing line, the sideline erupts and the McGill team runs over to high five supporters. “When the car stopped that close I couldn’t believe it myself,” said Sahmoud. “I was hoping for about 15 centimetres which would’ve made me very happy. This was about as close to a perfect run as we could get.”
The improbable road to victory in Salt Lake City went through Boston where, earlier this spring, the team finished second at the AIChE Northeastern Student Regional Competition to qualify for the national championship.
But rather than hit cruise control until the finals, the McGill team worked on Navona relentlessly over the summer and fall.
For starters, they adjusted on the power source, decreasing the size of the lead flow battery to make the car lighter. Additional work was done on the car’s electronic system and the wheels were changed to give it a better, and more consistent, grip on all types of surfaces.
The team also tweaked the chemicals in the stopping mechanism to improve reaction time and accuracy – one of the keys to the big win in Utah. Prior to the nationals, Navona had a lag time of several seconds between the chemical reaction of the braking mechanism and the actual stopping of the car – which could translate into stopping up to two metres away from the finish line. “By the time we got to Salt Lake City, we were less than one second,” said Sahmoud.
True to form, the McGill squad is not resting on its laurels. A second team has already been developing a completely new model Chem-E car for next year’s regionals. While the new car will be similar to Navona, it will employ a new stopping mechanism using a baking soda-produced reaction as opposed to the current iodine-based one.
“Winning this competition was huge, but now we have to defend our title,” said Sahmoud, who puts about 30 hours a week into Chem-E car. “Everyone will be gunning for us now.”