Friday, April 15, 2011

Engineers race to finish concrete canoe

Chase Cook/The Daily
Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stephen McCollam, mechanical engineering senior; Michael Hendrick, civil engineering junior; and Stephen Collins, civil engineering sophomore sand the sides of a canoe constructed with concrete. A team of engineering students built the canoe to compete in the regional of the National Concrete Canoe Competition on April 28 at Kansas State University.

Civil engineering junior Jason Kilpatrick leans over the side of a canoe on the first floor of the ExxonMobil Engineering Practice Facility. He works quickly to smooth out the side of the canoe before it dries. As he smooths the edges, part of the canoe starts to fall off.

“I need some more water over here — this part is falling off!” Kilpatrick says to one of his team members. The teammate sprays water on the crumbling area while Kilpatrick struggles with the thickening material in his hands.

Kilpatrick and his team are building a canoe for a national engineering competition, but they aren’t working with wood or plastic. Their canoe is built out of a concrete mixture passed down by previous teams.

The project is part of the National Concrete Canoe competition. Students build concrete canoes and compete in a mix of academia and athletics by racing and presenting the science behind each team’s canoe, civil engineering senior Jeremy Christiansen said.

Each team is graded on a technical paper, the boat’s display, an oral presentation and a series of races.

The team already completed its technical paper and the boat’s display — which provides a theme for the canoe and displays the materials used to construct it, Christiansen said. The team is hurrying to finish the oral presentation and the canoe before the regional competition begins April 28.

The body of the canoe is finished, but there is still a lot of work to do, Christiansen said. The team must complete the final outer layers of concrete to ensure the canoe doesn’t buckle from tension forces in the water. After that, the team will sand the canoe, Christiansen said.

During this process, the team has to ensure the canoe can handle the stresses of water, Christiansen said.

“Floating isn’t the most difficult part of building a concrete canoe,” Christiansen said. “Concrete wants to expand and buckle when submerged in water.”

To keep the canoe from buckling and to ensure it floats in the water, the canoe’s concrete mixture was formulated for strength and speed, Christiansen said.

Glass beads were mixed into a portland cement with fibers, additives, binders and water. The beads take up space and add strength without adding a lot of weight, Christiansen said.

The combination keeps the concrete light while giving it the strength to withstand the forces of water and passengers, Christiansen said.

The mixture does make the canoe light — two people can carry the canoe easily — but it still needs help to float in the water, Christiansen said.

At the front and back ends of the canoe are large sections of industrial foam. Teams can use as much foam and concrete as they want, and every team takes a different approach, Christiansen said.

“Last year, there was a team with an 800-pound canoe, and it floated,” he said. “But you have to remember you have to paddle that thing.”

Once the team completes all of the requirements for the contest, they will haul their creation to Kansas State University’s campus, where the regional competition will take place, architectural engineering senior Jenny Bergen said.

Bergen said she was primarily responsible for raising money to get the team to Kansas State. The trip will cost $9,000, she said.

Raising the money wasn’t difficult, Bergen said. The team sent out pamphlets, mailers and letters to firms across Oklahoma.

However, if the team makes it to the national level of the competition, it will need to travel to the University of Evansville in Indiana, Bergern said.

The trip will require an additional $6,000 in travel expenses, Bergen said. If the team makes it to nationals, members will have to contact alumni and firms for additional donations, Bergen said.

Even if the team doesn’t make it that far, Kilpatrick said the experience has been rewarding.

“I’ve learned things here that I can relate to my studies in my classes ... I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve actually done that before,’” Kilpatrick said.

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