The Charger Blog

Engineering Students Reflect on Building Small Car Powered by a Chemical Reaction

Students in the University of New Haven's chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) are applying what they learned in previous Chem-E-Car competitions as they set their sights on earning a spot in the AIChE national competition in 2019.

January 17, 2019

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

James Montesano (ME), Stacie Meruelo, Thomas Hong, and Nicholas Mahar

The days stretched into nights as the 10 engineering students "discovered a deep rooted electrical inefficiency in the battery" of the small car they’d designed and were building for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) annual Chem-E-Car competition. They had just a couple of weeks before they would be racing against teams from other universities at the regionals in Rochester, New York.

"Each day we would break our work up and focus on just one, small piece of the end goal," Nicholas Mahar, a senior Chemical Engineering major and former AIChE Student Chapter president. "This kept spirits high each day and helped us stay focused without the overarching stress of the final product creeping into our minds."

Kristine Horvat, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering and the University’s AIChE chapter advisor, said what makes the competition so challenging is that there are so many possible approaches a team can take using a chemical reaction to make a car start, travel a distance and stop.

While the University’s team didn’t reach the nationals last Spring, what they learned from the process was a huge win, said Stacie Meruelo, a senior chemical engineering major. Their sights are already on the 2019 competition.

"This was great practice for the future, when there will be very complicated systems and projects."Stacie Meruelo

"It was great because we had a senior Mechanical Engineering student, James Montesano, helping us with a lot of the building of the car," Meruelo said. "We’re hoping to get other engineering disciplines involved this year." The team also included Emily Tassinari, Thomas Hong, Joseph DiBella, Danielle Belskis, Dan Masi, and Malaika Matumbu.

"We started with a team of three at the beginning of the fall semester and with the incredible determination of our new adviser Dr. Horvat, we brought a team of 10 to the competition," Mahar said.

Horvat said the students gained hands-on experience building the stopping mechanism and battery, but they also performed the preliminary testing and assembled the final product. "They are very enthusiastic and excited about improving their car for next year, which speaks volumes to their dedication and desire to learn and improve their skills," she added. "These are all qualities that will make these students very successful engineers in their future careers, and I am very proud of all of them."

Working all those nights in the lab allowed them to trust everyone was on the same page. "This was great practice for the future, when there will be very complicated systems and projects," Meruelo said. "I will have to work with other engineers, and have that level of trust, that we’re all working toward the same goal."

In the AIChE’s Jeopardy competition where they had to test their chemical engineering knowledge against 11 other teams in categories like "Dead guys of science," "chemistry puns," "fluid dynamics," "process control," "organic chemistry" and "thermodynamics," as well as a few surprises like "Disney songs," "World capitals" and "music theory," the University of New Haven team placed second. "The only team to beat us was MIT," Meruelo said.