Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Derek Harris, a chemical engineering student at the University of Utah, works on his "Chem-E-Car" before competition at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Sunday.

A University of Utah student engineer watched the U.'s chemical-fueled model car roll toward the finish line. "Oh, slow up, slow up, slow up," he implored.

But the peculiar, boxy vehicle didn't slow. Instead, plastic toy gears rotating, it glided past the finish line and out of bounds. The young engineer laughed, "Maybe we're going to roll it out of the building."

The U. team was among 28 from throughout the United States who raced student-built vehicles Sunday afternoon in the national finals of the "Chem-E-Car" competition. Held in the Salt Palace Convention Center and sponsored by the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the race's top three finishers won awards of $2,000, $1,000 and $500.

The contest was held during the institute's annual meeting, which continues this week in the Salt Palace. About 5,000 chemical engineers are attending from throughout the United States and other countries.

Vehicles had to carry a designated load over a specific distance — both the amount of the load and the distance a secret until an hour before the race — and to stop on their own. Timers, switches and remote controls were not allowed.

Cars simply had to stop when their chemical reactions ended, forcing the students to calculate the right amount of fuel needed for the distance and the load. In this case, the distance to the finish line was 67 feet and the cargo was 350 milliliters of water (almost 12 ounces).

To qualify, teams had to do well in regional competitions. Altogether, 31 cars came to Salt Lake City, but three were eliminated for such problems as chemical spills. Teams could decide how vehicles were propelled as long as students substantially built the cars and fueling systems.

Some made hydrogen fuel cells, said Jeanette Krebs, spokeswoman for the institute. Some used baking soda and vinegar.

"Some of them use water and balloons. It's all about being very creative."

About 700 spectators watched live TV views of the racetrack, beamed onto large screens. The track was a big V marked by tape on the floor of Exhibit Hall 1. Cars ran in two heats, giving a second chance to those that fizzled the first time around.

Behind the starting line, students in lab coats or school colors worked on cars. They stood at folding tables, wearing protective gloves and measuring chemicals into chambers, and sometimes a faint acrid smell wafted into the air.

At the starting line, a student with a microphone was explaining what had been done to improve his team's vehicle between heats. But the car did not move. Finally, just to get it onto the racetrack, he gave the car a gentle shove and it rolled a short distance.

That was against the rules, but in the good-natured atmosphere that greeted the contestants, nobody cared. "It kind of moved," he said.

When a vehicle carrying containers for homemade hydrogen fuel cells failed to get over the starting line, a student lifted it. "The wheels do spin when they lift it," announced Robert Hesketh, professor and chairman of chemical engineering at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J.

Krebs said Hesketh has been the competition's emcee for years.

When another car failed to move, a student used a slim yellow rod to stir the ingredients in his car's fuel compartment. "Oh, good old mixing," Hesketh said.

"Will the mixing work? The mixing is the cause of many chemical engineers' problems."

Sure enough, the mixing was too vigorous and material splattered onto the floor. Hesketh called for a halt to the race so it could be cleaned up. While students in blue gloves were wiping up the spill, he announced it was simply rubbing alcohol.

"All right, a round of applause," he said. "They're going to come back and do better next year."

Puerto Rico's 110-student contingent cheered, yelled and sang for its team. Even after their vehicle rolled right past the finish line and out of bounds, they continued to wave the commonwealth's flag and chant, "Puerto Rico! Puerto Rico! Puerto Rico!"

The Carnegie Mellon team played rock music and had the audience make hand signs to urge its small car along. That must have worked: the Pittsburgh car stopped 4 1/2 inches from the finish line, landing them in second place and only half an inch behind the winner, Cooper Union of New York City.

Third place went to to the University of Oklahoma, Norman, whose vehicle was 8 inches from the goal.

When the University of Utah car was about to begin its run, students in the audience cheered and someone yelled, "Go Utes!" But then came the "slow up, slow up, slow up," begging at the finish line and the loss when the car went too far.

Derek Harris, a member of the U.'s team, said the only way to stop the vehicle is, "You have to run out of fuel." That means the reaction material has to be prepared carefully.

A junior majoring in chemical engineering and a resident of Tremonton, Harris said the competition hones one's teamwork skills. Together, students have to work on "a task that's so difficult ... especially because of all the safety regulations."

The university's car ran on baking soda and a concentrated form of vinegar called glacial acidic acid. "It's a pretty strong acid," said Jeff Davis, a senior and leader of the six-person team. "So when we were using it we had to put face shields on."

H. Scott Folger, the institute's new president, who started the competition in 1999, said he did it because of the need to do something to distinguish American education in the field of chemical engineering. Classroom instructions were largely similar throughout the world, he said.

"So what's going to distinguish U.S. chemical engineering from others is creativity and critical thinking?" asked Folger, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

He decided the contest is a way to these skills.

"It's been fun," he said. "It's the single largest-attended event at the annual meeting."

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