May 21, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers team vies for alka rocket world record

With $25K in prize money, the stakes (and the rockets) have never been higher

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez |

A group of 11 students from Rutgers has come together to set a world record for the highest launch of an alka rocket — a device fueled by the chemical reaction between water and alka-seltzer. Rutgers will be competing against students from other Big 10 schools for a prize of $25,000.

A team of 11 Rutgers students is competing to set a Guinness World Record for the highest alka-rocket launch ever. If they win, their names will be in the Guinness Book of World Records and they will receive a prize of $25,000. 

The competition, which is sponsored by the pharmaceutical technology company Bayer, is open to students from all Big Ten universities.

An alka-rocket is powered by a controlled chemical reaction caused by mixing water with alka-seltzer, which creates carbon dioxide. If the liquids are contained in a sealed chamber, it becomes pressurized like a balloon. Then if a hole is opened in the container, the carbon dioxide rushes out and the container is propelled forward, just like untying the balloon's knot, said School of Engineering junior Anthony Pellicori.

“The biggest challenge for this rocket is to keep the alka-seltzer and the water separate,” said School of Engineering sophomore Tanumaya Bhowmik. “You don't want them mixing because if they mix together you're gonna let the reaction run and you're gonna lose a bunch of gas. You don't want that to happen. You want it to be controlled and contained.”

The team's rocket is designed around two bottles that are attached at their necks like an hourglass and sealed off from one another by a membrane. One bottle contains the alka-seltzer, the other contains the water. When the membrane is opened, the rocket begins to pressurize. Then when it reaches the desired level of pressure, a nozzle at the base is opened, and the rocket launches, Pellicori said.

Rut Lineswala, a School of Engineering junior, estimates that the rocket will reach an altitude of 150 to 200 feet and will move at a maximum speed of 40 feet per second.

“It's like a reverse cannon pretty much,” Pellicori said. 

The internal pressure of the rocket will be about 1,000 pounds per square inch, he said. 

“Thousands of PSI is pretty dangerous,” Pellicori said. “Your car tire is about 32 to 40 PSI ... (a plastic bottle) is pressure treated to about 150 to 180 PSI. We blew one up at about 180. That's why we're gonna use fiberglass reinforcement on the water bottle so that we don't have any explosions.”

Using a fiberglass reinforcement was a minor compromise that the team had to make, said School of Engineering sophomore Abhishek Chopra. The rocket needs to be as light as possible, hence the decision to use plastic bottles rather than fancier materials. Through calculations, the team worked out a minimal amount of water they could use to achieve a sufficiently strong chemical reaction, but because the internal pressure of the rocket will be so high, stronger materials became necessary.

Per the rules of the contest, the rocket will not have any electronic components. Everything must work mechanically. This has forced the team to think creatively and rely on their skills as engineers.

“If you go online, there are plenty of resources,” Chopra said. “But all of them use electronics.”

Lineswala said that it was particularly difficult to design a parachute deployment system that would not use electronics. The team settled on a design with flaps on the sides of the rocket. As the rocket flies forward, the flaps are pressed closed against the rocket by the air pressure. Then when the rocket reaches the peak of its trajectory, the flaps open, releasing the parachute.

“Since we can't have any electronics ... we had to come up with something mechanically that will work and actually launch once we reach the peak of our launch,” said School of Engineering junior Alex Sanducu. “We have to make sure to do it so it doesn't create drag, make sure it doesn't spin or rotate. All these things are gonna factor in. If we've got two teams that are close to the same amount of power, it's gonna come down to which team has the better aerodynamics and gets that extra two feet.”

The team has until Sept. 29 to build their rocket. Then they will record a video of its launch, which they will submit to Bayer along with some information on their design. The submission will be judged on the basis of their research, creativity and the effectiveness of their rocket.

Of all the submissions, four finalists will be selected to go to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston to test their rockets for the world record.

Bhowmik said that if Rutgers' team wins, it will bring attention to the University's School of Engineering, as well as to the Rutgers chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

“Ultimately,” Bhowmik said, “This is something that will pay off if we do win.”

Max Marcus is a School of Arts and Sciences senior. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum.

Max Marcus

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