Senior design team builds sustainable ships

The rage of electric and fuel-efficient cars has led to the growth of new companies like Tesla and a redesign of gas-powered vehicles by other major auto manufacturers. At George Mason University, two mechanical engineering senior design teams are bringing electric power to the water as they build the hull of a ship and an electrical propulsion system with the support of the American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE).

Gas-powered engines cause many problems for the environment. The noise of a gas-powered engine can disrupt marine ecosystems, and since the engines use fossil fuels, they directly contribute to man-made climate change.

One of the two teams is working on the propulsion aspect of the project where they hope to mitigate these problems by building a battery-powered motor that turns a small propeller, says Joseph Canlas, the propulsion-team lead.

“It’s like Tesla on water,” says John Recktenwald, a friend of the team and fellow mechanical engineering major.

ASNE has also tapped another team to build a hull, or body of a boat, that can be used in the Promoting Electrical Propulsion (PEP) for Small Craft initiative, which is an educational and competitive program that aims to foster electric boat technology research and advancement. The hope is that in future competitions, teams from other schools will be able to use the same hull design this team is working on.

Together the hull and propulsion team will build a boat that will compete in the second PEP competition in July 2020.

Leigh McCue, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and team advisor who used to work for ASNE before coming to Mason saw this project as an opportunity for students to design, build, and test an actual vessel. “It was my understanding that the sponsor [ASNE] really wanted to increase student participation, and with our capstone projects being industry-driven, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get students involved in this opportunity,” says McCue.

The team admits that there was a learning curve at the start of their project because they hadn’t specifically worked with naval engineering before. “I think the first month was us just trying to figure out the terminology and the technology,” says Alex Stickel, hull-team leader. However, through research and teamwork, the students have found their footing for the project. 

“We’ve been taught a lot of thought processes and how to think through problems in an applied way in the mechanical engineering program, which has helped in this project,” says Philip Stolfi, a hull-team member. 

They’ve found that while electrical propulsion is energy efficient, their boat won’t be able to reach the same speeds that a gas-powered engine could.

“It’s less like the Tesla of the water, more the Nissan Leaf,” says Stickel. “It’s not super fast, but it is pretty efficient.”

For the next steps in their year-long project, many team members are excited to get building the hull and propulsion system itself, and they see the project as a good vector for practicing what a career in engineering will be like.

“A lot of people in the engineering industry talk about the importance of being able to teach yourself, and I think that’s the best part of this project, we had to learn something new and teach ourselves,” says Canlas.