THS grads help ChemE Car team on national stage

Tonganoxie High School graduates, from left, Ben Williams, Lacie Falk and Matthew Christensen are members of the Kansas State University ChemE Car Team that recently advanced to nationals. Enlarge photo

December 4, 2013

Ben Williams, left, surveys the K-State Chem E Car at a national competition this past month in San Francisco.

Ben Williams, left, surveys the K-State Chem E Car at a national competition this past month in San Francisco.

Kansas State University won a handful of conference championships in major sports during the 2012-13 school year.

Tonganoxie High graduates are helping the Wildcats become contenders on another team.

K-State junior Lacie Falk and sophomores Matthew Christensen and Ben Williams are members of KSU’s ChemE (chemical engineering) Car team.

The team finished 16th out of 32 teams at a national tournament in November in San Francisco.

The squad usually meets twice each week — two hours on Tuesdays and for three or four hours on a Saturday or Sunday.

For Williams, a chemical engineer major, joining the team seemed to be the best way to get involved on campus.

“As a freshman, I wanted to find a club I could get involved in and do something to apply what I’m learning in the classroom to a real-life scenario,” Williams said.

Williams and Christensen were freshman roommates and joined the club at the same time. They didn’t know before attending the first meeting that Falk also was on the team.

“We enjoy the fact that there are three people from Tonganoxie in ChemE Car,” Christensen said. “We credit a lot of it to Mr. (Ron) Lewis, the chemistry teacher (at THS).”

The club competes with two types of cars: a pressure car and a battery car.

Falk and Williams have been part of the pressure car team, while Christensen is part of the battery car team.

Both cars are slightly larger than a shoebox. Citric acid and sodium bicarbonate are mixed to form a chemical reaction for the pressure car. The gas that builds up from the reaction creates pressure, which is released into the piston and extends into the wheels, Williams said.

A chemical reaction also powers the battery car. Copper and zinc plates react in a solution, creating a transfer of electrons, Christensen said. That electric charge powers the car.

The cars must carry up to 500 grams between 50 and 100 feet within 2 minutes. But the teams don’t know those specified amounts until race day.

The K-State pressure car finished third and the battery car fourth at the May regional competition in Norman, Okla. A top-three regional finish lands ChemE Car teams in the national competition.

The cars had Wildcat-themed names, but the pressure car eventually was named Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Williams said with a laugh.

Team members had to scratch original plans because the car just wouldn’t move. Then, during shipment of the car to nationals, a piece broke.

“Things like that happened over and over,” Williams said. “It stayed together. We managed to put together a decent run at nationals.”

The sophomore said the team provides a nice break from studying. Though he’s not sure what his career path will be, he has been selected for an internship next summer in Orange, Texas. He’ll work with plastics for Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., which also is one of the ChemE Car Team’s corporate sponsors.

Christensen initially was a chemical engineering major, but switched to secondary education with emphasis on English and social studies.

“I didn’t see myself doing math the rest of my life,” Christensen said. “And I didn’t want to teach math the rest of life.”

Christensen said he enjoys working with chemistry and the people on the team.

One doesn’t have to be a chemical engineering major to be on the team, something Falk said is one of the best things about the team. She likes having multiple majors on the team and heavy freshman involvement.

“Right from the get-go, you’re involved,” Falk said. “It’s not just seniors doing things and freshmen piddling around.”

Falk, now a team captain, also is on the KSU engineering student council and part of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

The ChemE Car Team next will compete in regionals next May at Iowa State University, with nationals to follow next November. The THS graduates hope to build on the team’s storied history. The squad advanced to nationals eight consecutive times in the 2000s, finishing in the top 10 six of those trips.

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