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Running on foam

Chemical car team Co-Captain Nicholas Newport, at left, and team member Peter Cosgrove test the chemical they will be using to fuel the team's model car during the upcoming Chem-E-Car competition. Photo by Vicki Hodder

The Mizzou Engineering chemical car team’s real test will come not when its vehicle starts—but when it stops.

Eight Mizzou students are competing for the first time later this month in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) annual Chem–E–Car Competition. Competing teams must design and build a model car—roughly the size of a shoebox—powered entirely by a chemical reaction.

But the kicker involves a rule requiring each car to stop within two minutes. Any car that does not stop within that period during its designated race time will be disqualified for that round, online AIChE rules state.

“So we’ll need to adjust the chemicals depending on the distance it goes,” said Danya Dittmer, a junior in chemical engineering and the Mizzou Engineering team’s co–captain.

Both the precise distance the car must travel and the weight in water it will carry will be kept secret until one hour before the regional competition, to be held March 31 and April 1 at the University of Missouri–Rolla. The course can range from 50 to 100 feet, and the water weight from 0 to 500 milliliters—or about the size of a small water bottle.

Each car gets two tries on the course, with the car that stops closest to the finish line winning the performance contest. Results of a poster competition, in which each team describes its car and its power source, also will weigh into the final standings.

Mizzou Engineering’s team has devised a car propelled by a mix of the chemical isocyanate, water and a catalyst, which creates polyurea foam. The foam, commonly used as a flame retardant for insulation, expands within the car’s pistons to drive it, said team member Peter Cosgrove, a chemical engineering sophomore.

Team leaders noted that the foam is an unlikely and impractical fuel. But designing a car that would run on it was a fun and challenging application of chemical engineering knowledge, said Nicholas Newport, a senior chemical engineering student and the team’s other co–captain.

“I think it’s actually pretty cool,” Cosgrove said. “It’s just something you don’t see every day.”