Students use engineering for potato gun experiment

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) - Students from a southern Utah technology college put their engineering skills to the test this week at a former airport runway, but it wasn’t an airplane they were giving flight.

Amid repeated “fwup, fwup, fwup” bursts, about a half dozen students from Dixie Applied Technology College fired potatoes from the barrels of their makeshift bazookas and cannons as part of a competition to see who could make the vegetables fly the farthest at the south end of the old runway.

Students majoring in industrial facilities maintenance are studying what’s called fluid power, which includes hydraulic, pneumatic, pump and valve system science.

“We try to design our programs in such a way that there’s a practical assignment like this that seems fun because there’s a tremendous amount of thinking and learning that goes on in the process,” said Steve Carwell, a director with the college’s operations management program.

College vice president Vic Hockett said the potato gun experiment has been an annual tradition for three years.

Amid cheers from the small crowd gathered to watch, the competitors aimed for a line about 100 yards down the tarmac. A spotter measured the distance each potato flew.

“Everyone’s seen the combustion-style potato gun,” Hockett said. “With this competition, there’s zero combustion. It’s all air powered. The idea is to create a vessel to hold enough air pressure and air volume to propel a potato when the air is dumped.”

Jason Ray, a former long-haul semitrailer driver, said he is studying industrial facilities maintenance in hopes of expanding his skills before turning them into a second career.

He held his metal tube gun over his shoulder like a handheld rocket-propelled grenade launcher, describing it in terms that might be a little difficult for most people to follow.

“This is a coaxial design where the barrel is inside the reservoir,” Ray said. “It uses a composite piston, so when you charge it with air, the incoming air pressure forces the piston against the barrel and it seals it. And then when I press the on-off switch it activates the solenoid sprinkler valves, dumping all the air pressure that’s behind the piston. And the air pressure that’s in the reservoir forces the piston back.”

Dustin Lang put his employment at local salad dressing maker Litehouse Foods to use by utilizing stainless steel tubing and a fast-acting gate valve for his ground-mounted launcher.

“We went through all the mathematical scenarios of how long the barrel has to be, with how many psi and what the barrel diameter (should be),” Lang said.

Ray and Lang both said it was the first time they’d built a potato gun.

“There’s some pretty elaborate concepts,” Carwell said, pointing out how fluid dynamics are being put to use in severe weather response technology. “It’s not just been for fun. It’s the evolution of science.”

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