Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
University of New Mexico engineering students splashed down in third place at this year’s national solar-powered boat competition in Ohio.
The annual Solar Splash event pits student teams from universities across the U.S. against each other in a series of challenges that measure the capabilities of solar boats designed and built by engineering students. Teams compete on everything from speed and endurance to maneuverability and design innovation.
For the second year in a row, the UNM team placed third overall behind Cedarville University and the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez during the June 7-11 competition in Springfield, Ohio. It took second place in the zigzagging “slalom” event, which demonstrates boat maneuverability, and it won Outstanding Electrical System Design and Most Improved Team awards.
UNM’s LOBOmotorsports team also debuted a newly built electric race car for the first time at the June 15-18 Formula SAE international competition, an annual event held this year at the Michigan International Speedway. The Society of Automotive Engineers organizes the competition, where student teams design and build Formula One/Indy style race cars that are judged on everything from design, cost and acceleration to autocross and endurance.
UNM has competed every year since 1998. But this year, the team entered a newly created electric vehicle competition that launched in 2017, after converting UNM’s former internal combustion vehicle to a battery-powered race car, said mechanical engineering professor John Russell, who leads UNM’s Formula SAE program.
“We finished 16th among 65 competing university teams,” Russell told the Journal. “We beat top universities like MIT and Cal State Berkeley.”
Both the solar boat and the electric race car were on display at this year’s Solar Fiesta, an annual event organized by the New Mexico Solar Energy Association for the local community to learn about renewable energy. Student engineering teams and their faculty advisers provided show-and-tell about the boat and race car at the Fiesta, which took place on June 24 at UNM’s Cornell Mall.
Mechanical engineering master’s degree student Brandon Kirkpatrick said the solar boat project offered him a real-world opportunity to apply and broaden the knowledge and skills he’s learned at UNM, while also exposing him to career possibilities and the potential of solar power.
“It opened my eyes to clean energy,” Kirkpatrick told the Journal. “I hadn’t thought much about it before, but solar is a growing field where people are developing many new capabilities to modernize technology.”
Engineering student Steven Lindsley said he benefited from the teamwork involved in the solar boat project, which strengthens communication, design and management skills that are critical in the workplace. It also offered him direct field experience.
“A lot of engineering students don’t even touch hardware in their coursework, but this was all hands-on,” Lindsley told the Journal. “It was my first time using some power tools.”
Team faculty adviser and mechanical engineering professor Peter Vorobieff said experiential learning is central to the boat program, which is one of three “capstone projects” for engineering students alongside the UNM race car and a rocket-building program.
“The solar boat raises awareness of what we can do with solar power, and it involves real engineering,” Vorobieff told the Journal.
“Students gain experience that’s directly transferable to their professional pursuits.”
UNM joined the Solar Splash competition in 2016, although the annual event originally launched in 1994. To date, about 60 students have participated, including 15 this year.
“Some have gone on to jobs in the solar industry,” Vorobieff said.
The solar boat development could also potentially contribute to industry efforts to decarbonize container shipping, which is very difficult to covert to solar energy because of the immense power generation needed for maritime operations, Vorobieff said.
“There are no easy ways to convert modern container ships to electric power,” Vorobieff said. “We can’t retrofit existing fleets, so industry would have to build new ships. That’s why these skills will be important for engineering challenges over the next 10-20 years.”
Each year, student teams work to modify and improve the solar boat.
There is only enough space to seat a single person in the craft, allowing navigation via a steering wheel mounted in the center of the vehicle. The driver’s seat is surrounded by solar panels that cover the entire top of the boat, with each panel capable of generating 60 watts of electricity, or 480 watts all together.
This year, students focused on reducing the boat’s weight. They redesigned the drivetrain, made the boat a few inches shorter, and drilled holes on the inside supports in the hull. The boat can now go up to 23 miles per hour.
“Making it lighter means it can go faster,” Lindsley said. “That helped a lot in the competition, especially in the sprint challenge.”
Like the solar boat, UNM’s race car project offers hands-on experience every year. But for this year’s 25 participating students, the project was particularly challenging.
The team had to swap out the old internal combustion engine with an electric motor, then add a motor controller, a 720-pack battery system, and equipment for real-time battery monitoring to avoid overheating.
Of the 65 university teams competing in Michigan, only 12 progressed from vehicle qualifying rounds to actually race in the competition. UNM nearly made the cut, but a small glitch in the battery recharge system blocked the team’s advance.
“If there’s a fault during recharge, all the electronics must shut down,” said faculty adviser Russell. “It did that, but then they automatically came back on. That’s supposed to be done manually.”
Still, students said they loved the project.
“You get to design, build and assemble a product that you actually use,” engineering student Addison Portman told the Journal. “It was fantastic.”