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Wheels turn for UCLan physics challenge

31 October 2013

Chris Theobald

Students take inspiration from the laws of physics by powering vehicles with a fire extinguisher, rocket power and helium balloons.  

Teams of first year students studying BSc(Hons) Physics and BSc(Hons) Astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) have tested out self-powered vehicles designed to travel in a straight line for 50 metres carrying one (415g) tin of baked beans.

Without using a commercial battery or combustion engine (as used in model aeroplanes) the students used their existing physics knowledge to come up with some ingenious designs.

Two of the vehicles incorporated rocket power, one used a fire extinguisher and another involved the use of over 50 helium balloons.

 

“Like any manufacturing project the teams were given time to research their ideas, design the product, build one or more prototypes and run tests before making modifications or improvements to their vehicles.”

Each team was provided with a mentor (a physics lecturer) who observed, guided and commented on the students’ work without providing ‘answers’.

Dr Shane O’Hehir, lecturer and first year tutor within the School of Computing, Engineering & Physical Sciences, explained: “Like any manufacturing project the teams were given time to research their ideas, design the product, build one or more prototypes and run tests before making modifications or improvements to their vehicles.”

He added: “A lot of physics is about solving problems and this activity is no different. In order for the students to get the best from their vehicles on the day they have been required to answer a number of physics-related questions such as the energy needed to lift the vehicle over bumps and the energy required to maintain the vehicle at its cruising speed. It’s about comparing theory with experiment and over a four-week period the students have demonstrated exceptional team working skills to produce designs which involve truly novel methods of propulsion.”

 

“Having the opportunity to put physics theory into practice was a real eye-opener."

On the day the fastest vehicle, an adapted skateboard with a fire extinguisher attached (christened the ‘Shin Splitter’!), completed the 50 metres in 3.5 seconds, giving an average speed of over 51 kilometres per hour.

Declan Chesney, 18 from Accrington, was part of a challenge team which produced a rocket powered car. “Having the opportunity to put physics theory into practice was a real eye-opener,” he said. “Sometimes the theory doesn’t always work out but thankfully, after one false start, our rocket car managed to stay the course and deliver our tin of beans over the finishing line.”