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Chem-E Car Fuels Collaboration

Students from across Engineering come together to design eco-friendly vehicle

McGill’s Chem-E Car team at a competition

Christina Boghdady (front row, left) and Rola Abdul Ghani (front row, right) are the co-captains leading McGill Engineering's Chem-E Car team.

When Rola Abdul Ghani, BEng’20, joined McGill’s Chem-E Car Design Team in her first year at school, she couldn’t imagine how a group of undergraduate students could build a car powered by environmentally-friendly chemical reactions.

“It just sounded too abstract to me,” she reminisces. “But I really liked the group, and I knew it was possible because at the time McGill’s team had the world title.”

Since joining the team, Abdul Ghani has played an integral role: she’s gone from helping out at fundraising events in her first year to acting as co-captain in 2018-19. And she’s learned a lot, discovering the importance of collaborating with engineers from across disciplines to realize a successful project.

Bringing together students from across the faculty

“It’s really showed me how to make one thing that’s mainly chemical engineering, you need people in electrical to help you develop the sensors, people in mechanical to design the chassis and pick the wheels,” she says, describing her team’s efforts to design a shoebox-sized car to compete in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ annual Chem-E Car competition. “I’ve realized the importance of integrating all the disciplines.”

Although the Chem-E Car is small, building it is complex, and requires a range of skills. Students must design a car controlled by a series of chemical reactions. Once started, the car must travel a specified distance, safely transporting a load of water. The distance the car must travel and the weight of the load are only revealed one hour before the race, so students need to come up with a flexible design.

According to Abdul Ghani, the team, which boasted 100 members in 2018-19, is composed of students with diverse backgrounds, from software and materials engineers to architecture students. To streamline their efforts, they split into five sub-teams: Management, Power Source, Stopping Mechanism, Electrical and Mechanical. Each sub-team is responsible for developing a piece of the project, and designated leaders coordinate fitting the pieces together.

“My job as co-captain is to ensure the sub-teams are working together and that the car is ready for the deadline,” she explains. “But beyond that, it’s to make sure everybody is enjoying their experience, and developing the skills they need to learn as much as I did.”

For Abdul Ghani, the biggest challenge is ensuring all 100 members feel valued.

“We need everybody on board, so it’s very important to keep them interested and to make sure their efforts are appreciated,” she says. “Having a good communication platform, which is best for all the members is important.”

“Collaboration is really what we learn,” says Christina Boghdady, BEng’19, the team’s other co-captain.

Scaling up knowledge with hands-on experience

For Boghdady, the practical experience she gets working on the project is invaluable.

“We don’t get very many hands-on labs in our undergraduate courses,” she says. “Here it’s all hands-on, whether you’re building the mechanisms or in the lab doing tests. You learn so much from figuring out how to troubleshoot when something goes wrong.”

When developing new ideas the team starts small, and scales up once an element is optimized. When building the copper magnesium battery for the 2019-20 competition they started by creating a single fuel cell.

”Then we upscaled our design to build a fuel cell battery capable of generating the 12V we needed,” Boghdady says. “Doing it on a small scale it allows for a lot more prototyping and innovation.”

In 2018-19, the team went to Chem-E Car nationals to compete against 39 teams from around the world with a truly innovative design: a car powered by a soluble lead flow battery.

The battery was made up of a graphite rod inserted into a stainless steel tube, with an electrolyte solution containing lead pumped in. “We charged it by applying a voltage across, which led to the formation of lead and lead dioxide deposits to store energy,” Boghdady explains. “It was different because most flow batteries require two electrolytes, whereas soluble lead flow batteries require only one.”

In addition to its streamlined design, the battery was easily rechargeable.

“Most fuel cells need more fuel, but in this case you can just keep using the same electrolyte, so you don’t generate as much waste,” Boghdady adds.

According to Boghdady, although the soluble lead flow battery’s design isn’t ready to be scaled up to use for full-size vehicles, the concepts the team explored could help students develop innovative, environmentally-friendly solutions in the future.

“There’s a lot of potential in the energy field with a chemical engineering background,” she says. “In Chem-E Car we introduce these concepts and principles to inspire the young minds of the future.”

Paving the road for women in engineering

On top of preparing the next generation of future-ready students, the 2018-19 Chem-E Car Design team, with its two female co-captains, serves as a source of inspiration for young women in engineering.

“You show up at the competitions, and there’s all these male captains around you. It feels pretty nice to be a woman and a captain,” Boghdady shares. “I think that’s the main privilege, I get to increase the representation of women in engineering, and work towards encouraging more women to go into the field.”

“I think our team demonstrates that women are actually involved in engineering and make things happen,” Abdul Ghani chimes in.

Support student projects like the Chem-E Car Design Team by making a gift to the Faculty of Engineering’s Student Initiatives Fund.