Campus as Lab: Electric Boat Motor Designed for Princeton Crew Team

rendering of boat motor
Posted on September 20, 2016

by Nazik Elmekki '18

Inspired by the auto industry’s desire to reduce fossil fuel emissions through fleet electrification, a team of students in Princeton’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department has created a long-range electric boat motor in an effort to promote a similar electric revolution in the marine industry. With support from the High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund, the team of engineers is applying their research to make the operation of the University crew teams' launch boats more sustainable as part of a Campus as Lab project.

Ben Sorkin ‘17 and Kirk Robinson '17 developed the idea for the project after they were successfully able to electrify a hydroplane race boat and achieve 47mph. After identifying ways the system could be improved over the past spring, Robinson and three other students have been working on producing a model that is “performance capable, robust, low-maintenance, safe, and reliable.” 

boat motor Electric Boat motor work in progress

Although the process can be expensive and time-consuming with the need to integrate parts from a variety of manufacturers, Sorkin still says that seeing it all come together inspires him. The team strives to create a final design that is user-friendly and catered to widespread use, and credits the Campus as Lab aspect of the project with helping to identify applications for the electric motor outside of academia.

electrical parts Boat motor parts

“Campus as Lab really shows us the difference between doing research for academia versus doing research for applications that can make a tangible difference in whatever environment in which you are working,” said Sorkin.

As in the automotive world, the use of electric motors in the boat industry will result in healthier environments by eliminating oil leakages and pollutant discharges. The team hopes to use these benefits to improve the water quality and marine populations in the ecologically-impaired Lake Carnegie. Furthermore, by taking advantage of the electricity generated by solar and gas right on Princeton's campus, the team hopes their system will reduce overall carbon emissions by more than half of the gas motors currently used. Greg Hughes, the head coach of the varsity men’s heavyweight crew team, has agreed to test out the team’s final model. If the electric motor proves to be as good or better in terms of performance, maintenance, and reliability compared to the incumbent gas motors, the crew team would consider scaling up the electric motor across its entire fleet of launch boats.

With its connection toward improving the ecosystem in Lake Carnegie and aquatic environments worldwide, this project provides an example of how student research can use the Princeton campus as a living laboratory to advance both local and global sustainability efforts.

Photos courtesy of Kirk Robinson '17