Chem car team
The winning team, from left: Ryan Daut, Maximilian Worhatch, Ian
Van Houten, Les Okonek, a member of the WSU College of Engineering
and Architecture executive leadership board,
Nicholas Laymon and
Devin Ergler.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Chemical engineering students from Washington State University won first place at the regional ChemE Car competition this month in Bozeman, Mont., and will compete at nationals in San Francisco in November.

The idea for the contest was developed by a WSU student group in 2000. The competition is sponsored by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

The students, all juniors, are: Ian Van Houten, Bellingham, Wash.; Ryan Daut, Mount Vernon, Wash.; Max Worhatch, Puyallup, Wash.; Devin Ergler, Cle Elum, Wash.; and Nick Laymon, Willamina, Ore.

Chemical calibrations

Competition rules stipulate that the car must run and stop on its own using chemical reactions. The teams learn the distance the car must go and the weight of the load it will carry just an hour before the competition and then have to quickly determine the proper calibration for their car.


This year’€™s WSU team began working together in January to resurrect the car they call “Frankencoug,”€ since it was made with some of the parts left behind by the last WSU team that competed two years ago.

Consisting of premade parts, such as a large Tupperware container and bright yellow plastic wheels, the team’€™s car was lighter than the other entries.

“We all found out the day of the competition that the cars had to run on carpet rather than linoleum, and the heavier cars were really affected by that,”€ Ergler said.

Hydrogen fuel cell

Inside the light framework sits a hydrogen fuel cell that powers the car. A balloon at one end stores the released hydrogen, and a beaker containing a magnesium strip sits on top of the car and acts as the stopping mechanism. When acid is poured into the beaker, the magnesium strip dissolves; once it is dissolved, the car stops.

“It was a great feeling to win because during the week leading up to the competition we were putting in 8-10 hour days to work out some problems,”€ Worhatch said.

BP donation

A $1,000 donation from BP and access to the Unit Ops lab at WSU helped the team develop the entry. Team advisor and professor Richard Zollars and professors Su Ha and David Thiessen supported the team by answering questions and offering suggestions.

As the students prepare for the national competition, they hope to improve the car’s precision. They also hope to get more underclassmen involved next year so WSU students are regularly entering the competition.

Funds needed for competition

“It is a good way to be involved with chemical engineering outside of the classroom, and it gives us a chance to apply what we’€™re learning to a real project,”€ said Daut.

The students are trying to raise money to attend the national competition. For more information on how you can give your support, please contact Don Shearer at 509-335-4733 or

Tina Hilding, WSU College of Engineering and Architecture communications coordinator, 509-335-5095,