Friday, October 21, 2016

Why not a chemistry Cannonball Run?

A successful jerry-rigging
Credit: Benjamin Preston, The Drive
I promise that this isn't turning in to a car blog, but I cannot resist this piece by Benjamin Preston at The Drive, about a Cannonball Run (i.e. a cross-country automobile race.) The stipulation of this particular race is that the vehicle had to have been purchased for less than $3000 and be a vehicle from the 1970s. You should read the whole thing, but I especially enjoyed this part about fixing an alternator that had been problematic the entire trip:
...Perhaps as subliminal compensation for my failure to address the alternator issue back in New York, when it would have made a difference, I had, at the last minute, thrown the Omega's original alternator into the back of the trunk. Covered in oil and grime, it had come with the car's 6-cylinder engine when it had rolled off the assembly line in Flint back in 1974. I had little confidence in this soiled, elderly part, which was why I'd sprung for the remanufactured-in-Mexico Autozone alternator to begin with. 
This stop required more pause for thought, but the headscratching cost us time. After installing the oily original-equipment alternator, Hart and I discussed the heat problems associated with an under-sized alternator. What if, he reasoned, we could find a way to cool the alternator, thereby keeping it from burning out like the others? 
"Can you run without the bonnet?" he asked, suggesting that maybe we could remove the hood and strap it to the roof to allow cool air to flow across the alternator. I wasn't into this one, but then he wondered aloud if we could devise some sort of ducting to cool the overheating part. 
Next to the dead-end parts store we'd stopped at was a Tractor Supply Co., a veritable trove of useable odds and ends. From there, we picked up a length of flexible RV sewage hose, cutting it in half to form two shorter hoses. Zip-tying one end of each into the slots on the car's lower bumper, we routed the hoses between the hood and radiator support, then zip-tied the other ends to the alternator. Hart fixed a bottomless McDonald's cup into one of the hoses to form a sort of intake. The idea was that cold air from outside would, at speed, be forced into the hoses and up onto the alternator to keep it cool. Almost an hour later, we wrapped up our junior high school engineering project and got back on I-40. 
Although the headlights dimmed whenever the fan kicked on, the charge light left us alone for the rest of the trip...
Successful improvisation is really one of those things that has a psychological payoff like no other. It's good for team building (when it works, that is) and it can almost be fun to solve a problem under pressure.

Also, wouldn't it be cool if there was some sort of chemistry-related endurance race? Maybe it could be something where you had to improvise and perform a 4 step synthesis, but each reaction had to be run in a different time zone? I dunno, I'm probably crazy, but I'd enjoy running a recrystallization in the middle of the night while trying to figure out the fastest route to the next fuel stop...


  1. It's funny to hear that there used to be a budget limit on the Cannonball Run. The current record holder, Alex Roy, took the record in a late-model BMW M5, and then beat his record with an Infiniti Q50 with a GT-R motor and modified controls.

    I suppose you could read that as a historical analogy to Pharma, with ever newer, ever more powerful, ever more expensive cars/labs....

  2. Surprised that junky hose didn't melt sitting atop the radiator like that.

  3. Many environmental analytical chemists participate in this type of endurance event. It starts with someone on the phone saying "There's a funny smell in the river."