A University of Minnesota rocket team smashed a Big Ten college competition and set a Guinness World Record in reaching the highest height for an effervescent tablet rocket — a rocket fueled only by water and Alka-Seltzer.
The U team beat Northwestern and Rutgers universities in the finals of the “Alka-Rocket” challenge held last week at Space Center Houston. The competition was a pumped-up version of an elementary school experiment that commonly propels 35mm film canisters a few feet into the air when a part of an effervescent tablet is mixed with water.
At the collegiate level, the simple experiment is taken to a whole new level. Instead of a film canister, the U’s rocket team designed and built a rocket that blasted 430 feet in the air with the help of 100 ground-up Alka-Seltzer tablets to beat Rutgers and Northwestern. U senior Kevin Schrader said a group of 10 students began work in September on the Bayer Big Ten Alka-Rocket Challenge for a chance to win $25,000 and a spot in the Guinness World Records book.
After tweaking multiple versions, the team had a rocket of carbon fiber, fiberglass and 3-D printed plastic that was 15 inches long, 1 inch in diameter and weighed 50 grams — just shy of 2 ounces. The key feature to making it light and fast was an exterior propulsion chamber that was separate from the rocket. That meant the rocket wasn’t weighed down by having to carry its fuel into the air. (Take note, Rutgers.)
The Rutgers rocket carried its fuel and topped out at 62 feet. Northwestern was disqualified because of equipment trouble.
With five members of the U team gathered around the launchpad, the U’s countdown began: “Five, four, three, two, one, blast off.”
About 100 elementary students and a panel of judges — including Mae Jemison, the first black female NASA astronaut to go into space — looked on and Isaac Newton’s third law of motion — for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction — took center stage.
Carbon dioxide was released from the antacid tablets, the pressure built to 275 psi and the U’s rocket burst from the PVC tube and into the air, Alka-Seltzer water spraying behind.
“It’s always good watching things fly high and fast,” said Schrader, an aerospace engineering student who says his “heart is in the skies” and hopes to land a career working on anything that flies.
With the U’s win, which will be recognized during a presentation Dec. 2 at the Big Ten football championship game in Indianapolis, the prize money will go to building more rockets. Getting in the record book is a bonus.
“As one of my team members said, Guinness is the book that every kid checks out in the library,” Schrader said. Every kid wants to be in that book, he added.
“This is a dream come true,” he said.