AIChE’s Chem-E-Car Competition® at 25 Years: A Look Back, Part 1

In 2018, 3D printed models of the first Chem-E-Car to ever win the competition were presented to the founders of the competition on the 20th anniversary of the Chem-E-Car Competition. L to R: Christine Seymour, H. Scott Fogler, and Cynthia Murphy-Ortega.

For generations of chemical engineering students, the AIChE Chem-E-Car Competition® — an annual engineering design challenge supervised by AIChE’s Student Chapters Committee (SCC) — has become a touchstone in many undergraduates’ progress from engineering trainees to AIChE member professionals. At the 2023 AIChE Annual Student Conference, contestants participated in the 25th annual running of the Institute-level competition finals.

A ChemE student rite of passage

Over the years, the competition has involved thousands of chemical engineering students at AIChE student chapters around the globe. It’s been instrumental not only in introducing student engineers to concepts of teamwork and safety in design and practice, but it’s also been a doorway into the larger world of AIChE.

According to David Dixon, an AIChE Director and a member of the Chem-E-Car rules committee for more than 20 years, one of the things that first impressed him about the competition was the inventive approaches taken by the students. “The creativity of the teams, as they tried to find new reactions and to build more sophisticated cars, was exciting,” says Dixon, a professor at South Dakota School of Mines. “It was also good to see that they were challenging themselves to design better and more accurate performance vehicles.”  

Yet, aside from being an educational exercise for student engineers, the Competition arose from a desire among AIChE leaders to reveal — in an accessible way — the marvels of chemical engineering to the general public. That vision featured student engineers as the “drivers” of the showcase activity.

How Chem-E-Car got its start

As part of the Institute’s programming for student members, in 1993 and 1994, AIChE and the Partnership for Plastics Progress collaborated on an undergraduate Plastics Recycling Competition. AIChE student members where challenged to describe a process to recycle mixed plastic waste into marketable products. The activity captured the interest of many student chapters, and it soon inspired AIChE to look for a signature annual competition that might bring favorable public attention to chemical engineering — in the style of the egg-drop contests and cement canoe races conducted by engineering students in other disciplines (mechanical and civil engineering, respectively).

In 1998, AIChE looked to its student members for inspiration. The Institute challenged undergraduates to devise a novel concept for a competition that demonstrated chemical engineering principles to the public.

One of the creations was a small chemically powered car, constructed by student members at Washington State University. That concept won the approval of students and professionals at that year’s Annual Student Conference.

The very first Chem-E-Car Competition

The Student Chapters Committee, with guidance from AIChE leader H. Scott Fogler of the University of Michigan, settled on the theme for what was then referred to as the Student Chapters Competition. It would involve the creation of model autonomous vehicles (no larger than a shoe box) that would be fueled to carry a variable load over a variable distance, powered by a precisely controlled chemical reaction. Student teams competed to pilot their cars to a stopping point as close as possible to a target distance announced just prior to the competition start.

At the Fall 1999 Annual Student Conference, the first Student Chapters Competition, featuring a limited pool of “Chem-E-Car” contestants, was won by the University of Michigan, with prizes sponsored by General Mills. Chevron began its engagement as a Competition sponsor in 2008.

Positive response from students and professionals alike was immediate, and the Chem-E-Car Competition soon became a popular highlight of the Annual Student Conference and the Institute’s activities for student members.

See photos from competitions over the years.