Colorado State University Chemical Engineering Car Team Powers to First Place on Baking Soda, Salad Dressing

Colorado State University’s chemical engineering car team took first place by an inch at the third annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers national Chem-E-Car competition, held earlier this month in Reno, Nev. The team competed against 20 other universities from across the nation.

Chem-E-Car Competition: First Place Win! (from left to right): Karen Dane, Chris Bristow (Captain), Omon Herigstad, Dr. Vincent Murphy, Josh Gesick, Chad Sapp, Tim Rollenhagen, Michael Weiger, Kristin Carpenter (holding CSU's Chem-E-Car), Amber Royce, Jamie Harrington, Dianne Butay, Celeste Farrah and Ruth Johnson.Sponsored by General Mills and AIChE, teams of college students compete to design and build a car powered by a chemical reaction without the use of brakes, timing devices or other stopping mechanisms. The car and all of its components had to fit into a shoebox-sized container and construction costs could not exceed $500. Colorado State’s entry amounted to $146.

Teams were given ranges of traveling distance and quantity of cargo that entries would be expected to carry. One hour before the competition, they were notified that vehicles would need to travel 60 feet and carry 450 milliliters of water. The teams had to adjust the ratio of chemicals based on the new requirements to win the race.

Colorado State’s 13-member undergraduate team, led by Chris Bristow, a senior chemical engineering major, combined a solution of an equimolar sodium bicarbonate and five percent acetic acid to power their vehicle. Teams were able to create any chemical mixture as long as it was safe.

"We wanted to make sure that our chemical solution was safe, but also powerful," said Karen Dane, a senior majoring in chemical engineering at Colorado State. "Basically we used baking soda and vinegar, a common ingredient in salad dressing."

Each team participated in two trials and was permitted two minutes to set up vehicles and allow the chemicals to react. The better of two runs determined the winner. Colorado State’s team placed fifth after the first run, but was able to correct their ratio of chemicals to beat Northeastern University by one inch in the final competition. The team was awarded $2,000 for placing first.

"I was a little surprised that we won by an inch, but we worked hard and found solutions to every problem we’ve encountered since we placed second at last year’s nationals," said Dane. "Its gratifying that all of our hard work paid off."

The competition also included a poster competition displaying how each car operated, unique features, cost of materials, safety and environmental features. Colorado State placed first in this event as well.

For more information about the Chem-E-Car competition, visit the AIChE Web site at