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Students Set Sail with the Sun in Solar Splash Competition - 2003-06-21

For the last three years, Buffalo, New York, has been home to the Solar Splash competition. This weekend will mark the 10th anniversary of the event. Solar Splash is a unique contest that pits universities and high schools from across the country and the world against each other in the ultimate boat race. In this race there are no supercharged engines, high-tech sails or even low-tech paddles to move the boats forward. Instead, the sun is the power source.

It's not often that you see electrical boat engines, let alone solar-powered electrical boat engines. But that's what these students have to work with. Most of the vessels are designed to seat only one person at a time. They're generally long and slender and have as many solar panels attached as possible. The long and slender design cuts down on the amount of resistance or drag from the water, increasing the efficiency of the motor.

Matt Burnfeld was on the 2001 University at Buffalo team, and VP of the UB Chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He says that a great deal of effort goes into building a solar boat and it isn't all construction work. "Basically you start with a lot of research. You go in and find out all the electrics. We're very limited by our rules and how much power we can bring in. So basically everything is efficiency," he says. "So most of all the research goes into making everything efficient. Then you go out and get what you need to do it after fundraising, a lot of it. Then we take it and put it all together," he says.

After the money is raised and the competitors have constructed their boats, they compete in several different Solar Splash races. In the sprint, it is rather impressive to see these boats speeding along in excess of 45 kilometers per hour. Keep in mind the rules of the competition limit the boats to roughly 36 volts stored up in a few car batteries.

"Get Set, Go. Zoom! Zoom! South Carolina!"

The University of South Carolina has been a tough competitor over the years. In 2000 and 2001, their boat earned first place in the sprint and first overall. "Competition. It's all about competition and the fun of designing it and watching your production go."

One of the most unique productions on the water is a creation by Marquette University. The Wisconsin school has also been one of the top Solar Splash contenders over the last few years. Unlike most of the other boats, theirs is a hydrofoil, designed to actually lift itself out of the water.

Ted Straub piloted Marquette's solar craft in 2001 and says the foils are more than just attractive. "The whole idea of the foils is because it reduces drag. The foils lift the boat out of the water. All you have left are these sleek engineered wings. They have so little drag. That's the point. The efficiency of the boat is the wings," he says.

While the sprint is fun to watch, he says the efficiency of a solar boat is really put to the test during the endurance portion of the competition. "The race is just a two hour race and there's a lap size about a quarter a mile and you just try and do as many laps as possible. You know if you're dead, and you can't do any more laps, you're done. But if you can keep going for two hours and do as many laps as possible, you're great. So you reduce your speed and increase your efficiency and go as long as possible. If you can do that you're golden," he says.

The Endurance actually involves quite a bit of strategy. You don't want to go too fast and use up your batteries, but of course you don't want to go too slow either. Competitors really have to work hard to maximize the solar energy available.

Ted Straub steered Marquette's boat to a clear victory in the 2001 endurance race. He passed the other racers several times. Near the end, Ted demonstrated that his vessel still had plenty of power to spare. For the final few laps, he pushed the boat to its top speed, while many of the other teams were simply struggling to continue moving.

However, the hydrofoil was beaten in last year's competition by a team from Montreal, Canada who also went on to win the overall competition. Who will win this year? Well there are many factors to consider, such as the ingenuity of this year's competitors, and of course, the weather in Western New York. According to the National Weather Service, it looks like it is going to be partly cloudy all weekend long.