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Clarkson team powers on to fall nationals


POTSDAM — A shoebox-size model car is propelling an entire team of Clarkson University students to a national chemical engineering conference in Minneapolis this October.

Eleven members of Clarkson's Chem-E-Car team took third place at a regional American Institute of Chemical Engineers Chem-E-Car conference in April, qualifying them for the national competition. The Clarkson team competed against five other colleges at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I., for the best model car entirely powered and stopped by chemical reactions.

"I've been waiting for three years to go," said Ian T. McCrum, a rising senior and a chemical engineering major who has been on the team since his freshman year. "From what I've heard about the other national competitions, it sounds like it'll be a lot of fun but definitely a lot more pressure, a lot more teams. We have high hopes."

Mr. McCrum, who has served as the vice president of the Chem-E-Car team for the past two years, explained that the competition requires students to engineer two chemical reactions, one to power the model car and one to stop it after it travels a predetermined distance. Students are assigned the predetermined distance only an hour before they must compete, requiring the team to complete extensive tests and calibration before the conferences.

The Clarkson team is part of the Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering's Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design program and is advised by professor Ruth E. Baltus, chairwoman of Clarkson's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. This year marks the second time in the team's six-year history that it will be competing at the national conference.

"I certainly had a lot of fun over the past three years. It also provided me with a way to expand upon my student leadership," Mr. McCrum said. "I get to actually research (the car), build it and test it out, and that was amazing for me. It was an experience I couldn't have gotten anywhere else."

In the case of Clarkson's team, the car is powered by energy released from the oxidation of high-purity aluminum and is stopped by a color-changing iodine clock reaction. Although the iodine mechanism is used annually by the team, Mr. McCrum said the students typically introduce a different powering mechanism every year.

In addition to taking third place at the Rhode Island conference, Clarkson's team also won an award for presenting the most creative informational poster.According to Mr. McCrum, the car takes nearly an entire academic year to design and build, partly because it must be tested extensively and partly because of the learning curve with each new powering mechanism.

"The thought behind our team is, we really wanted to go in with something new," Mr. McCrum said. "We'd rather show up to the competition with a car that no one has ever seen before and possibly risk not coming in first, but having an innovative design."

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