Benjamin Sorkin ’17 Power Boating: Designing Electric Motors that Sustain our Waters
By Carolyn Sayre
Ever since Benjamin Sorkin ’17 was a kid, the marina has been his laboratory. For as long as he can remember, his family spent their summer vacations at a remote cabin on Lake George in upstate New York. After earning his boating license at age 10, Ben began collecting old engines from the 1960s and restoring them to vintage condition. His prize project was a 1961 Glasspar G3 ski boat that he rescued from a barn where it sat unused for thirty years.
“There were no organized activities—just an open screen door, the lake, and the surprise of my next revelation,” Ben recalls of his summers. “I spent hundreds of hours collaborating with experts around the world and making modifications to the propellers that would maximize the speed and performance of the old boats I worked on. I marveled in the challenge of making machines work better, faster, and safer.”
Ben has always surrounded himself with anything he could assemble, test, disassemble, modify, reassemble, and then test again. As a four year-old, he was enthralled with finding ways to make his Lego pullback cars race faster. After countless rebuilds, he discovered that reducing the weight on the axles prevented them from rubbing together and slowing down. As a star hockey player in high school, Ben approached the rink like a physics lesson. During games, he would configure the optimal dynamics for his skate blades and flex of his hockey stick needed to put the puck in the back of the net.
“Searching for solutions became the lens through which I examined the world,” says Ben who is a junior studying in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “For me, engineering is not just a profession, it is a lifestyle.”
From the moment Ben stepped on the Princeton campus as a freshman, he was captivated by a multitude of engineering studies from thermodynamics to space flight design and computer science. But just as it had in his youth, it was the challenge of efficiency—making machines work faster and better—that Ben found himself most passionate about. Eager to test his ideas, he joined Princeton Racing Electric—a student organization that develops sustainable energy drive systems and high-performance vehicle designs. Ben was working on the electric racecar's drive system when he had the idea to apply the green technology to his first love: boats.
“Boats require a lot of energy to move through the water, which makes efficiency very important. An electric boat is a system with a limited amount of energy and because of battery weight, you can’t add much more energy, so you have to figure out how to make the machines more efficient with the amount of energy you have,” Ben explains. “Some of the ways we can optimize energy usage are by improving aerodynamic designs, maximizing propulsion efficiency, and capturing wasted energy through thermoelectric devices.”
In the summer of 2015, Ben successfully converted a vintage outboard combustion engine into a fully electric model. The design produced six kilowatts of power using a brushed electric motor and lithium-ion batteries that were mounted to Hedlund Hydroplane from the 1960s. His research project won a Merit Award for "Superb Craftsmanship" at the Lake Champlain Antique and Classic Boat Society (ABCS) Chapter Show and the "Dockmaster's Choice Award" at the Lake George ACBS Chapter Show.
“Ben blew me away with how hard he worked and how much he completed in one summer,” says Dan Steingart, PhD, Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, who is also Ben’s advisor. “He brought the passion for this effort to the lab. Ben's ideas on quiet, emission-free tools for recreational sports can make a big impact on these communities in terms of quality of life as well as aquatic maintenance.”
With so much focus on the automobile sector, water pollution is often overlooked. However, Ben says it is extremely detrimental. In fact, operating a gasoline boat for one hour generates the same amount of pollution as driving a car for 800 miles. In addition, marine pollution affects fragile aquatic ecosystems, harms wildlife, and diminishes the quality of waterways.
“Research in electric outboard motors is essential to bring the marine industry on board towards a sustainable energy future,” adds Ben. “We have seen a green revolution in the transportation industry, but the nautical world still lags at least 10-15 years behind. Little progress has been made towards developing clean energy marine propulsion systems.”
Currently, there are only three companies that manufacture electric outboards that can be used for anything more than trolling (a type of fishing), and two of these manufacturers are still using antiquated technology. This leaves a tremendous gap in an industry where innovation and research is necessary for the marine sector to join the green revolution.
Working with fellow mechanical engineer, Kirk Robinson '17, Ben intends to fill that gap by designing and building a commercially-viable electric outboard motor that is light, efficient, reliable, safe, and simple to use. The target market for Ben’s design will be medium- and large-sized canoes and rowboats, as well as small pleasure boats and hydroplanes.
To demonstrate the durability and quality of the finished electric outboard motor, Ben will attach it to a small race boat and attempt to break two American Powerboat Association electric world speed records in the summer of 2016. His goal is that the electric motor will be able to produce up to 30 kilowatts of power (40 horsepower) and propel the boat to speeds nearing 70 miles per hour. Ben has received support for his projects from the Keller Center, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Summer Practical Research Experience.
“Our research will create a versatile and desirable electric outboard that will bolster the marine industry’s involvement in the sustainable energy revolution,” says Ben. “It is critical that we find a way to reduce our carbon footprint while furthering the advancement of maritime technology.”