Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: Solving the Fuel-Up Puzzles

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomWe hope you are enjoying the puzzles we have been putting up in the last few weeks. Though all of them may not be directly convertible to GMAT questions, they are great mathematical brain teasers!

(Before we tackle today’s puzzle, first take a look at our posts on how to solve pouring water puzzles, weighing puzzles, and hourglass puzzles.)

Another variety of puzzle involves distributing fuel among vehicles to reach a destination. Let’s look at this type of question today:

A military car carrying an important letter must cross a desert. There is no petrol station in the desert, and the car’s fuel tank is just enough to take it halfway across. There are other cars with the same fuel capacity that can transfer their petrol to one another. There are no canisters to carry extra fuel or rope to tow the cars.

How can the letter be delivered?

Here, we are given that a single car can only reach the midpoint of the desert on its own tank of gas. Since there are no canisters, the car cannot carry extra fuel, so it will need to be fueled up by other cars traveling along with it.

Let’s fill up 4 cars and get them to start crossing the desert together. By the time they cover a quarter of the desert, half of their fuel tanks will be empty. Hence, we will have 4 cars with half tanks, and the status of their fuel tanks will be:

(0.5, 0.5, 0.5, 0.5)

If we transfer the fuel from two of the cars into two other cars, we will have:

(1, 1, 0, 0)

The two cars with fuel in their tanks will continue to cross the desert and cover another quarter of it. Now both of the cars will have half tanks again, and they will have reached the middle of the desert:

(0.5, 0.5, 0, 0)

Now one car will transfer all of its fuel to the other car, allowing that car to have one full tank:

(1, 0, 0, 0)

That car can then carry the letter through the remaining half of the desert.

For this problem, we didn’t really care about the stalled cars in the middle of the desert since we are not required to bring them back. The only important thing is to get the letter completely across the desert. Now, how do we handle a puzzle that asks us to get all of the vehicles back, too? Let’s look at an example question with those constraints:

A distant planet “X” has only one airport located at the planet’s North Pole. There are only 3 airplanes and lots of fuel at the airport. Each airplane has just enough fuel capacity to get to the South Pole (which is diametrically opposite the North Pole). The airplanes can land anywhere on the planet and transfer their fuel to one another.

The mission is for at least one airplane to fly completely around the globe and stay above the South Pole; in the end, all of the airplanes must return to the airport at the North Pole.

For this problem, we are given that a plane with a full tank of fuel can only reach the South Pole, i.e. cover half the distance it needs to travel for the mission. We need it to take a full trip around the planet – from the North Pole, to the South pole, and back again to North Pole. Obviously, we will need more than one plane to fuel the plane which will fly above the South pole.

Let’s divide the distance from pole to pole into thirds (from the North Pole to the South Pole we have three thirds, and from the South Pole to the North Pole we have another three thirds).

Step #1: 2 airplanes will fly to the first third. A third of their fuel will be used, so the status of their fuel tanks will be:

(2/3, 2/3)

One airplane will then fuel up the other plane and go back to the airport. Now the status of their tanks is:

(3/3, 1/3)

Step #2: 2 airplanes will again fly from the airport to the first third – one airplane will fuel up the other plane and go back to the airport. So the status of these two airplanes is this:

(3/3, 1/3)

Step #3: Now there are two airplanes at the first third mark with their tanks full. They will now fly to the second third point, giving us:

(2/3, 2/3)

One of the airplanes will fuel up the second one (until its tank is full) and go back to the first third, where it will meet the third airplane (which has just come back from the airport to support it with fuel) so that they both can return to the airport.

In the meantime, the airplane at the second third, with a full tank of fuel, will fly as far as it can – over the South Pole and towards the North pole, to the last third before the airport.

Step #4: One of the two airplanes from the airport can now go to the first third (on the opposite side of the North pole as before), and share its 1/3 fuel so that both airplanes safely land back at the airport.

And that is how we can have one plane travel completely around the planet and still have all airplanes arrive back safely!

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!