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Zero Emissions Day is a 24-hour global moratorium on the use of fossil fuels, held annually on September 21st. One of the guidelines proposed by the moratorium is to “minimize (or eliminate) your use of electricity generated by fossil fuels”—by turning off your lights when you leave a room, for example, or riding your bike to work.

In the spirit of minimizing fossil fuel use, the Carnegie Mellon Solar Racing (CMSR) club is answering the question: “What if a vehicle—a boat, for example—could be powered not by gas or oil, but by the sun alone?”

“Our club builds full-sized boats that are powered by solar energy,” says James Zhang, the club’s secretary and a junior in mechanical engineering (MechE) and engineering and public policy (EPP). “They’re not remote-controlled, they’re not small—they are full-sized, solar-powered boats that we actually have a person inside, driving.”

After a three-year hiatus, CMSR is competing again—and this summer, they made a big splash. From June 7 – 11 CMSR competed in SOLAR SPLASH 2017, the World Championship of solar boat racing, conducted and organized by the IEEE Power Electronics Society. The SOLAR SPLASH competition, “an international intercollegiate solar/electric boat regatta,” consists of three heats: Solar Slalom, Sprint, and Solar Endurance. CMSR took 3rd place overall, additionally receiving the “teamwork” and “most improved” awards.

We were one of the few teams that handmade our boat. We poured our heart and soul into it.

Madelynne Long, Vice President, Carnegie Mellon Solar Racing

This year’s boat, VorteX, is 17 feet long, fabricated out of carbon fiber, and built to race. Glinting solar panels sit atop the vibrant, red boat, which connect to batteries cached inside the hull. The boat is striking to observe, and formidable on the water.

“We were one of the few teams that handmade our boat,” says MechE junior Madelynne Long, one of the club’s vice presidents. “We poured our heart and soul into it.”

CMU boat passing another boat during race

Source: CMSR

Carnegie Mellon Solar Racing’s boat VorteX, driven by skipper Sebastian Gamboa, overtakes another boat during the SOLAR SPLASH 2017 competition. (GIF is sped up 2x)

Not only did CMSR build their own boat using carbon fiber molds, but they also had a system on board that set them apart: an Android tablet containing an app the team built that showed all the data the boat collected, such as power drawn from the solar panels, current readings, and voltages. This information, says Zhang, was really important and contributed greatly to why the team received 3rd place.

“We had really strong communications and inter-team coordination during the endurance race especially,” adds Long. “It was really exhilarating, because this was our first full two-hour run for our boat, so we weren’t exactly sure how it would go.”

During the endurance race, Long says, the entire team was on standby—watching the race, monitoring the app for speed, time, and power drainage of the propulsion system, and communicating this information with the driver. In the final ten minutes of this two-hour race heat, the skipper radioed back to the team that because the team’s solar energy storage system was so efficient, the boat had essentially full power remaining. So the team encouraged him to go full throttle.

The team ended up taking 2nd place overall in the endurance race, due to their effective communication and coordination.

“I think that was a really happy moment for the entire team,” Zhang says. “Originally, we just wanted to make it to the competition, which was already a huge accomplishment in itself. But on top of that, we actually thrived and gave a stellar performance in the race. It was just amazing.”

Team members pose behind boat

Source: CMSR

Carnegie Mellon Solar Racing team members Penelope Ackerman, Suresh Manian, James Zhang, Sebastian Gamboa, Madelynne Long, Cesar Quinones, and Nicholas Lamprinakos pose next to VorteX.

CMSR is currently recruiting new students to join. Though this year they saw a great improvement, Zhang is optimistic that the club’s achievements will continue to grow.

“The current iteration of the CMSR team was very young and inexperienced when we began preparing for the 2017 competition,” says Zhang, “and given our performance this year, I think we can expect great things in the future.”