UTC students to put their chemical-driven car to the test today

UTC students to put their chemical-driven car to the test today

April 6th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Ben Kegley, Jonathan Cain and Brooke Washburn prep their Chem-E Car for a test run down a hallway. The car, which is entirely controlled by a series of chemical reactions, will be competing in a regional competition judging the accuracy of the distance it can travel with weight added to it. The car was designed by two teams of UTC engineering students - one team for the chassis and motor and another for the stopping mechanism.

Photo by Jay Bailey/Times Free Press.

Deep in the bowels of a building on the UTC campus, a team of eight engineering students is trying get "Scrappy," a chemically powered car, to move a measured distance and stop at a line of blue tape on the concrete floor.

Ben Kegley and Brooke Washburn stand on each side of Scrappy, simultaneously pressing points to get the contraption rolling.

Jonathan Cain is behind the car, checking the battery. Sumner Welte stands beside the group, waiting to time the car's journey on his smartphone.

A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen propels the car forward.

In less than a week, the more than 1,000 hours this team has poured into the car will be put to the test at a regional competition called Chem-E-Car put on by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Teams will compete to construct a car that can carry a specified weight of water a certain distance.

Kegley, a junior, has worked on the competition since his freshman year. That was the first year the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga had competed after a multiyear break, said professor Tricia Thomas.

In the hallway, Scrappy rolls slowly forward, a blue light on its tail end flashing and a solid green light shining on its side.

Welte walks alongside the car, tapping his smartphone screen at each 5-foot tape mark. He's calculating the rate the car is traveling so they can adjust their measurements.

Just after the 55-foot mark the green light switches off and a red light blinks on.

Scrappy stops, a few inches over the line.

"It's powered by a chemical reaction and stopped by a chemical reaction," Welte says.

Not bad.

"Basically the reaction we can control the best is the one that wins," Washburn said. And she should know; she's in charge of the stopping part of the team.

Today at the competition in Lexington, Ky., the team will be given specifications and one hour to prepare. They'll be told the amount of water their car will have to carry, a distance to travel and a time limit under two minutes.

And there's a price limit. Teams can't spend more than $2,000 building the car.

Volkswagen and BASF sponsor the team.

They call the car Scrappy in part as an homage to A.C. "Scrappy" Moore, the famed UTC football coach, and because the car is made from scraps, Kegley said.

Last year the team placed third out of 17 teams and qualified for the national competition. At nationals, the team placed ninth out of 33 teams.

Beating one particular team -- Carnegie Mellon-- put a smile on the professor's face.

The prestigious research university was where Thomas earned her doctorate degree in engineering.

"It shows that their education is real," Thomas said. "They can compete on a national front."

Kegley and the others enjoy the competition but said the practical aspects, hands-on work and camaraderie earned in the laboratory drive them to commit hundreds of hours a year to the work.

Washburn sees the work put into the car as a good way to showcase what she's learned.

"I want to be able to walk into a job interview and say this is what I did while I was in college," she said. "I know how to work with budget constraints, work with a team, travel."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.

Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.