Students Ready Sun-powered Boat for Contest

Photograph: Engineering students are working to ready a solar-powered boat that will represent Columbia in an international collegiate competition in Milwaukee June 22-25. In the mechanical engineering lab last week were, from left: Emmanuel Garcia, Brian Leibowitz, Binu Parayil, Michael Jenkins, lab supervisor Bob Stark, Kwan Shek, Greg Zimmerman, Kathleen Cordero and Bridget Cooley. Photo Credit: Joe Piniero.

Engineering students are working feverishly to ready a solar-powered boat that will represent Columbia at an international collegiate competition in Milwaukee, June 22-25.

The students expect to test the taxicab-yellow boat by June 1.

"I've never seen our students more enthusiastic," said Bob Stark, lab supervisor for the department of mechanical engineering, who has helped students design and construct the 17-foot wooden craft. "They've put in a lot of work and, win or lose, it has been a great experience."

Twelve undergraduates in the School of Engineering and Applied Science have seen the project through: Bridget Cooley, Kathleen Cordero, Emmanual Garcia, Quill Hyde, Michael Jenkins, Brian Leibowitz, Valerian Mayega, Binu Parayil, Ann Satar, Kwan Shek, Benjamin Smith and Greg Zimmerman.

The students collected $1,150 from private companies and Columbia student organizations to build the hull. The motors, propellers, fuses and other components were donated by manufacturers. The department contributed $1,500 to purchase solar panels. Hertz Penske has donated use of a 23-foot truck to ship the boat to Milwaukee. And the office of the provost will cover the students' lodging and travel expenses. The boat will bear the names of the sponsors.

"A lot of us in mechanical engineering like to see how things operate," said Jenkins, a graduating senior. "We're all the type who took our toys apart when we were little to see how they worked. This is an opportunity to make something ourselves."

Several seniors involved in the project are using it to satisfy their engineering design project requirement, a four-credit course. Normally, though, students design a project and build a prototype of their design--not a functioning vehicle.

"We're all very enthusiastic about the competition," said Cordero, a first-year student. "Working on the boat has been a great hands-on learning experience that will not be forgotten. It's been a lot of fun."

The event, called "Solar Splash," was first held last August, when it was the first solar regatta featuring craft designed and built by college students. About 130 students from 10 colleges gathered at Pewaukee Lake in Milwaukee to race boats ranging from graphite-hull hydroplanes to converted canoes and fishing boats.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers will sponsor the competition, which consists of a 200-meter sprint event, in which all contestants use car batteries to supply power, and a two-hour endurance event, powered both by car batteries and the sun. Last year, Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Japan won both endurance and sprint events.

Eighteen colleges from the United States and abroad are expected to compete this year. Trophies are awarded not just to the winners but in a variety of categories, including design, technological achievement and sportsmanship.

The 12 students working on the boat grouped themselves into three design teams, one for the hull, one for the solar and electrical components and one for the propulsion system. The craft is a planing hull design, which at faster speeds rides high in the water, minimizing drag. Without a pilot, it weighs about 330 lbs., but "it should run smoothly," Stark said.

The boat, which is nameless so far, will be painted in a black-and-yellow checkered scheme, evoking a New York City taxicab. Solar panels, or solar cells, that look like blue ice crystals will lie flat on the boat's deck. They will generate about 480 watts of electricity, which will charge car batteries that will power an electric motor expected to generate about 20 horsepower. Stark said the craft should run at about 8 miles per hour over several hours' time.

What happens to the boat after the race? "If it wins," said Glenn Rightmire, associate instructor in mechanical engineering and faculty adviser to the project, "we'll give it to the Smithsonian."


Columbia University Record -- May 17, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 29