Solar boat designers feeling good about green

Over the last year, a group of Northeastern University engineering students built a solar-powered boat not only to compete in a national collegiate competition, but also to shed light on the potential of green technology.

Mechanical engineering students Brent Sisson, Brian Arena, Westy Ford, John Leo and Andrew Gawlak designed and constructed the boat from scratch. Last fall, they built the hull and conducted float tests in the Cabot Center pool. Later, they added the solar panel system, the propeller, the electrical system, steering capabilities and a drivetrain developed by a different group of engineering students for their senior capstone project.

The students put in months of hard work to overcome a series of challenges, which included incorporating and retrofitting complicated components and scrambling to fix a snapped drivetrain a week before the Solar Splash competition in Iowa last month.

Northeastern finished 15th out of 22 teams overall, but placed 8th in the sprint event.

“We had the mentality that no matter what happened, we were going to go there, even if it meant fixing the boat on the trailer on the ride out,” said Sisson, who was introduced to the project a couple of years ago at a meeting of the Northeastern chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

According to Sisson, winning the competition was secondary to integrating solar technology into recreational boating.

As he put it, “The point was to push green technology in a way it hasn’t gone before. “It’s great to go to the race, but there were broader applications we wanted to consider.”

Engineering professor Richard Whalen, who served as the faculty advisor for the project, called the experience an overwhelming success, and the students were dedicated to learning as much as possible in Northeastern’s first time competing in the annual event.

“It was a great systems engineering experience for the students, and it was an opportunity to apply the things they’ve learned in the classroom and on co-op,” said Whalen, who noted that students are already thinking of ways to improve next year’s boat.

Sisson hopes to pass the torch to other green-focused engineering students. “I’d really love to come back here in five years and see that the solar boat is doing well,” he said.