When Dr. Randy Weinstein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, published research on using lemon cell batteries for Villanova’s Engineering Freshman Design Project in 2007, he could never have guessed he would inspire a group of German high-school students to engineering success four years later.
Using insights from Dr. Weinstein’s Journal of Chemical Education article entitled “A Lemon Cell Battery for High-Power Applications,” Dr. Beate Brase, a teacher at Eric Keastner High School in Hannover, Germany, and her team took first place in the “New Materials” category for their lemon-powered Lego® car at a science competition. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, presented the award to the team in February as part of her proclamation of Germany’s participation in the 2011 International Year of Chemistry.
Just over a year ago, Dr. Brase contacted Dr. Weinstein for some “emergency roadside assistance” based on his article, which demonstrated how lemon juice battery cells, made from UV-vis cuvets that use a magnesium anode and copper cathode, can be used to power anything with an electric dc motor. Dr. Brase’s team had applied Dr. Weinstein’s work to power a Lego car with the intention of using it to move an egg 20 meters. Unfortunately, they hit a bump in the road with the car’s performance as the contest deadline approached.
“When I initially received the email, it was pretty cool to see someone in Germany using a lemon juice-powered Lego car to perform a series of tasks in an educational setting. Not only that, but they truly understood and appreciated the teaching and learning components of the project,” says Dr. Weinstein, who offered them two ideas to improve performance – adding more battery cells in parallel or gearing the car to generate more torque. “Similar to conducting research, I want to teach my students that in life there are multiple choices and tradeoffs to make a decision. I think Dr. Brase and I both have taught our students this lesson.”
The advice paid off, and Dr. Brase’s team “took the checkered flag,” which symbolizes Dr. Weinstein’s contention that “research has no distance.” On the heels of her team’s big win, Dr. Brase was invited to lecture at a premier science teacher congress in Bremerhaven, Germany, held in November, where she publicly thanked Dr. Weinstein for his assistance via SKYPE.