A team of students from Princeton University in New Jersey has smashed the world speed record for electric boats, surpassing the old record by 41 km/h.
The Princeton team set the new record on a one-kilometre course on Lake Townsend outside Greensboro, North Carolina. Piloted by veteran speedboat captain John Peeters, the Princeton boat made one pass through the course at 179 km/h. Without recharging the batteries, Peeters made a return pass at more than 188 km/h. The average speed of 183 km/h surpassed the previous record of 142 km/h set by the automotive company Jaguar in 2018.
Princeton Electric Speedboating, a student-run team made up of 44 undergraduate and graduate students, represents most engineering disciplines as well as members studying economics and physics. The students conducted much of the engineering, design and fabrication of the boat and of the engine that propelled it on the record-setting run.
Luigi Martinelli, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the team’s faculty advisor, said Princeton Electric Speedboating is completely run by students. An expert in computational fluid dynamics and aerodynamic design, Martinelli said that while faculty members offer advice, the students manage the club’s organisation, engineering and finances.
The Princeton team broke the record using a four-metre outboard boat called Big Bird. With a hydroplane hull resembling a stealth fighter plane skimming over the water, Big Bird is equipped with a three-phase, 200-horsepower electric motor designed by the Princeton team and built in coordination with Flux Marine of Rhode Island.
The team also took first place in the 2023 national collegiate competition Promoting Electric Propulsion, organised by the American Society of Naval Engineers and sponsored by the US Office of Naval Research.
Team captain Andrew Robbins, a junior majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering who piloted the boat in that competition, said team members were thrilled with both results. He said they plan to make further adjustments to the boat and improve on the results in the future.
Princeton Electric Speedboating started in the autumn of 2020, when junior Nathan Yates read an open invitation for participants in the Promoting Electric Propulsion competition. Yates said the requirements for participants were simple: ‘The boat had to be all-electric and look like it wouldn’t be a health hazard.’
Yates brought in four friends, including one Rutgers student, to work on a design. Because of Covid-19 lockdowns, Yates commissioned the teammates to handle the project modularly – each member building portions of the boat in California, Oregon, New Jersey and Rhode Island. They bolted the powertrain together just ahead of the competition in the summer of 2021.
‘Two days before the race in Baltimore, we got together in the hotel and spent 48 hours straight soldering. The motor turned on and it spun,’ Yates said. ‘We bolted it into the hull and off it went, but 20 yards off the dock, the driver was ankle deep in water. The hull turned out to be undersized and we had to pull it back in.’
The team went back to Princeton a month later and switched hulls, with no changes to the powertrain, and the boat ran at 43 km/h. Eventually, that boat was turned into an autonomous boat called Le Papillion. The team then obtained another racing hull called Tiger, which would be converted to electric and run at 67 km/h.
In September of that year, Yates recalled an early meeting in which Robbins, then a first-year student, approached him with a proposal. ‘He said, “Tiger used to run 95 miles per hour (153 km/h) all day long as a gas boat. I think if we can power Tiger up, or build a more powerful boat, we can take down the world record – which is only 88 miles per hour (142 km/h)”,’ Yates said. ‘This was right after our first race, where we didn’t even finish. But I was sold. I could see the math and the vision – it was absolutely doable. There was some serious pushback from the team, however.’
A few months of argument and discussion followed, but team members eventually warmed up to the idea. It seemed unlikely, almost crazy, but everyone agreed when Yates said that ‘it was a cool idea’. ‘I called Andrew about 2am one Friday night,’ Yates said. ‘I said find me a new hull.’
Robbins, a Michigan native with a background in speedboating, made a series of calls to boaters and connected with JW Myers, a veteran racer and the owner of Black Sheep Racing in South Carolina. ‘He said, “I think I know just the hull for this,”’ Robbins said. ‘The boat was called Big Bird.’
Big Bird is well known in racing circles. Designed by legendary boat builder Ed Karlsen, the boat, which is a hydroplane hull, had set several important records using a petrol-powered engine. ‘JW knew it was fast, it was safe and it would do what we needed it to do,’ Robbins said.
For the motor, batteries and drive train, the team worked with Flux Marine. ‘It became a great relationship,’ said Flux Marine co-founder Ben Sorkin about working with the students. He recalled testing his own electric boat on Lake Carnegie as an undergraduate and has since hired Princeton engineering students as interns and full-time engineers.
Much of the fabrication work for the drive train was performed on campus. Robbins said teammates spent hours in the lab adapting and creating parts for the boat. He said lab managers provided critical assistance with the machinery, and student teams created simulations and performed computer-assisted design work.
Sorkin said the students’ enthusiasm was infectious and engineers spent late nights working on the design. ‘What I loved about these kids was the attitude,’ he said. ‘They never got frustrated. They just went back and worked harder.’