Thursday, April 3, 2014

Solar Sailors Hit the Water

San Joaquin Delta College engineering student Jacob Heth pilots his team’s solar-powered boat on a test run Sunday at the Stockton Sailing Club at Buckley Cove in Stockton. Heth and his engineering classmates plan to enter a solar- powered craft in an annual regatta held by Sacramento Municipal Utilities District.
Hundreds of boats in Stockton are powered by renewable energy.

It's not a new concept. Columbus sailed the ocean blue - he didn't jet across it in a motorboat.

But the 12-foot dinghy launched by a dozen San Joaquin Delta College engineering students on Sunday just might be the only vessel in town powered by the Sun.

While a few Stockton Sailing Club members watched in wonder, students dunked "Tipsy" into the Delta for the first time, and were pleased - perhaps a little relieved? - to see her slice through the calm waters of Buckley Cove at a decent clip of about 3 mph.

"Unlimited fuel, buddy!" one of the boat's designers called out to Tipsy's captain, student Jacob Heth. "Knock yourself out!"

A top speed of 3 mph might not sound very fast, but it's not bad, considering the four solar panels mounted across the top of Tipsy are barely enough to power four light bulbs in your house.

The students are preparing for a competitive solar boat regatta which was dreamed up by the San Joaquin County Office of Education, and is hosted each year by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

So, on the surface, this is a story about a cool project requiring collaboration and creative thinking.

But it's also a story about Delta's ambitious engineering students, many of whom come from ethnically diverse and, in some cases, disadvantaged backgrounds.

You won't find engineering offered at many community colleges these days, instructor and project adviser Ben Howser said.

But Delta's chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers has more than 40 members. The club admits students of any ethnicity, but one of its goals is to increase the number of professional engineers from minority groups.

Right now, minorities across the country are underrepresented in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

"At Delta, we get these students ready to transfer to four-year schools," Howser said. "Davis, Cal Poly, and once or twice a year, Berkeley."

Which, incidentally, could be the very caliber of schools that Delta is competing against at the upcoming race.

No fear.

"I think we're going to be competitive," Howser said.

Everyone in the upcoming race gets the same number of solar panels. The trick is figuring out how to mount them to the boat, how to connect them to the motor, and how to do it using as little weight as possible.

Delta's students aren't divulging all of their secrets. This is a competition, after all.

The panels sit flat across the top of the boat. A battery - which they'll need for a separate battery-powered race - sits under the panels. A switch allows the captain to alternate between solar and battery power.

Waterproofed wires connect the panels and battery to the outboard motor.

There was no shortage of sunshine on Sunday, and sure enough, as soon as the hull was lowered into the water, the boat silently glided off from the pier.

Switching to battery power provided a little extra kick, getting Tipsy up to about 5 mph. When powered by the sun, she slowed down a bit.

But the students figure that by redistributing the weight of the panels, they might be able to coax a little more speed out of her.

Plus, when race day comes in May, the sun will be higher in the sky and should provide more juice.

In the end, the launch was a success. "It went," the instructor said afterward. "That's the important thing."

Chris Augmon, 22, has one more year at Delta before he transfers to a four-year university. He wants to be an electrical engineer.

The students involved in this project are at different levels in their studies, but all helped in some way to design the boat, he said. (By the way, Tipsy belongs to Howser, who likes to sail. She may go by a different name during the upcoming regatta.)

The race isn't just an exercise in creativity, Augmon said. Not with increasing limitations on fossil fuels and traditional energy sources.

"I think we need to come up with a novel solution," he said. "This gets people thinking about sustainability in the long run - renewable technology, at some level."

While all went well during the brief maiden voyage on Sunday, any engineer can confirm that when it comes to technology, you just never know.

Which is why, in addition to all the high-tech stuff on Tipsy, there was also a wooden oar stashed away beneath the panels.

Just in case, the students said.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Sweat is a renewable resource, too.


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