May 21, 2018
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Students plan to power boat with waste heat

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

CASTINE, Maine — There is a lot of waste energy at the exhaust end of an internal combustion engine, and some students at Maine Maritime Academy are hoping to show that they can capture that energy and use it to power a hybrid test boat.

The experiment is part of a research project at the college that began last year when students used a thermoelectric generator to convert the heat from the engine exhaust on the MMA research vessel Friendship to electricity to power a panel of lights on the boat.

This year, the students have converted a 20-foot enclosed lifeboat into a test platform in order to see whether the system they have developed can be transferred to a larger platform that could be used to increase the efficiency of the boat’s power plant.

“We’ll use it as a test platform for different thermoelectrics,” said Andrew Blackman, a fifth-year senior at MMA from Warren who is the student leader of the project this year. “Most ships use [alternating current]. What we’re trying to do is to take the [direct current] off the thermoelectrics and make useful power to do more than light up light bulbs.”

If it works on the lifeboat, he said, it would show that the technology is sound and could be scaled up to be used on a full-size ship. Capturing waste energy and converting it to electricity would improve the efficiency of the existing engines, reducing the amount of fuel required to produce the same power output on a ship, he said.

So far, the U.S. Navy and the American Bureau of Shipping are interested in their research and have provided grant funding for the project.

This year’s student team includes Blackman, Chris Wallace of Crawford, Christian Beauregard of Epsom, N.H., all marine systems engineering students at the college, and MMA alumnus Travis Wallace of Crawford, who was the project leader last year and is now a graduate student at the University of Maine working on the de-velopment of thermoelectric generators.

Their advisers on the project are Paul Wlodkowski and Pete Sarnacki, both associate professors in the college’s marine systems engineering program. Wlodkowski also is on the graduate faculty of the university’s mechanical engineering program. With Wallace’s continued participation, the project provides a good joint effort between two Maine institutions, he said. That has allowed the team to tap into the expertise of faculty members at both institutions.

“This is research and development in its classic form,” he said. “They are developing a first of its kind hybrid vessel. They are working on critical issues that will have a positive impact on Maine’s fishing fleet and commercial shipping in general. They are at the forefront of this type of research, which also has economic poten-tial.”

The project also takes students out of the normal routine and gives them a broader perspective about what they’ve been doing in the classroom, Sarnacki said. They have to draw on their knowledge in a variety of disciplines — electrical, plumbing, mechanical — in order to solve the different problems involved in such a project.

“A project like this brings all those different disciplines into focus,” he said. “It tests the students’ ability to bring together the things they’ve learned in the last four years and make something happen.”

Although the test this year will be done on a diesel-powered generator, the students have tested the system on a gas turbine as well. Most commercial vessels now are powered by diesel engines, but, according to Travis Wallace, the U.S. Navy is looking into converting to gas turbines. He indicated that the project would look into adapting the technology for further tests on gas turbines.

If the lifeboat system is successful, he said, it could become a floating test platform for testing new thermoelectric technology in the future.

“This could be a test platform for the future,” Wallace said. “Eventually, we could test other people’s units along with what we’re doing here.”

Although the focus at MMA is on the marine applications for the technology, Sarnacki said the automobile industry is researching its potential, too. The technology also can be adapted to land-based power plants, he said.

The team was still waiting for equipment to arrive, but hoped to have everything installed in time for on-the-water testing later this month.

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