Sun Powered: Solar racing team tests boat in East Texas waters

Published on Tuesday, 18 March 2014 09:23 - Written by


The road wound down the hill proving a trial for the six students that rolled their boat down it on a trailer.

With each obstacle in the ground came an instruction, “Drive right!” or “Watch for the bump.”

When they got to a steep decline, Nathaniel Krasnoff wrapped a rope attached to the trailer around his waist using his body weight as a brace while three other students pushed against the boat on the other side preventing it from rolling too fast down the hill.

If the journey to Timber Lake in Smith County was a challenge, getting into the water and actually moving wouldn’t be much easier.

But for the Carnegie Mellon University students, the obstacles were just parts of the process as were fun, adventure, little sleep and energy drinks.

While many college students spent their spring break relaxing, these students chose a different route.

They took a 20-plus hour road trip in a U-Haul and a passenger van from Pittsburgh, Penn., to East Texas. The purpose? They wanted to spend the week on Betty and Dick Summers’ property in rural Smith County, camping out, building their solar-powered boat and testing it on the waters of Timber Lake. In one week, they accomplished all they set out to do.

One of the students was 18-year-old Hannah Tomio, a freshman electrical engineering major from Chicago, whose father was the former curator of the Tyler Museum of Art.

It was the Tomios’ friendship with the Summers that led to the students coming out to East Texas. And the students eager to finish their project and test their boat in warmer waters were happy to oblige.

The group included Ms. Tomio along with Nathaniel Krasnoff, 22, a senior/master’s mechanical engineering major from San Diego; Sharina Hall, 18, a freshman biology major from Middletown, N.Y.; KJ Lee, 22, a senior/master’s mechanical engineering student from Paramus, N.J.; Michael Tyler, 22, a senior computer science major from San Diego; Maya Lassiter, 19, a freshman electrical engineering major from Minneapolis; and Brian Khoury, 21, a freshman electrical engineering major from Davenport, Iowa.

The students — all members or officers in CMU Solar Racing — are preparing their boat to compete in the DONG Energy Solar Challenge, a World Cup for solar-powered boats. The competition will be held in the Netherlands in June.

Krasnoff, the president of CMU Solar Racing, said they are the only team from the United States slated to compete in the event. Most of the other teams are from Europe.

They plan to compete in the Top Class, which is described as the Formula 1 of solar-powered boats, according to the competition’s website.

“There are almost no restrictions in this class,” the webpage reads. “The competitors are free to choose their solar panels.”

The team has raised money and secured several corporate sponsors to fund their endeavor.

The boat is designed to run with six solar panels, the size of those that are placed on roofs of houses. It can go as fast as 30 mph.

Although seven people came to East Texas, more than 50 are part of the CMU Solar Racing organization.

Ms. Tomio said those members are divided into teams based on the part of the project they worked on.

These teams include power/electrical; propulsion, which included the propeller, motor and drive train; hull, which involved physically building the hull and pontoon; and optimizing, which involved making all the systems work well together.

Krasnoff said the team has put in more than 2,000 hours of work on the boat and this is an extracurricular project for which they receive no grades, credit or pay.

But it’s worth it, he said.

“This is what you become an engineer for,” Krasnoff said.

The boat looks similar to a canoe. It is made out of carbon fiber and foam with four solar panels attached to the front and two attached to the back. In the back, a pontoon helps support the panels.

Although the students got their boat down to the water without problem on Wednesday, once there, they had some problems.

When they prepared to launch it, the chain broke on their propeller and an initial attempt to reattach it failed.

In addition, the pontoon was not solidly supporting the solar panels in the back. The students tried to address the problems, with several of them working waist- or chest-deep in cold water. But they pressed on.

Ms. Tomio said in an email that the team made all the boat’s systems to work on Thursday before they left Texas.

Krasnoff said working through the challenges is part of the process. And based on the jokes and laughs between the team members, fun is, too.

The boat will be shipped to the Netherlands in the spring, and the team will travel there this summer. Eight people will be on the official team, but more could attend the event.

Krasnoff said if they win the competition, they receive a monetary prize and an invitation to compete in another competition.