Solar Boat Twente wants to contribute to a sustainable future by designing and building an innovative solar boat and joining solar boat races.
Our audience contact and marketing manager Carolina Garcia had an interview with the technical manager of Solar Boat Twente’s 2020/21 Team Rick Witbreuk.
Carolina: What is your role now in the Solar Boat Twente?
Rick: I am the technical manager. We have eight engineers working on different subjects. My role is to lead them to the same end goal. So, every team is aware of each other and the aim. My task is to help them when it is necessary and follow the progress and make sure that we finish the boats before races as we have one year as a team. It is busy but also a pleasant experience.
C: How did you end up joining this team?
R: All the students in the team are studying at the University of Twente, and many of us study for three to four years at the university, but studying is theoretical, so most of us miss the practical experience. We all have a gap year where many students spend this year investigating themselves or trying to gain a practical experience. We have a lot of interactions with the corporate world. I finished my Bachelor last year and did not know what to do for my Master’s; so I decided to investigate myself to see where my interests lie. Solar Boat is a good place for that because it is multi-disciplinary.
C: What did you study in your Bachelor?
R: I studied Biomedical Engineering for three years. I did a pre-Master year in Mechanical Engineering, and I like both topics, so I am taking this year to decide on what I really want.
Carolina: In our program, the Master students come from very different backgrounds, and it is exciting to see how these people can come together for a project.
C: If you had all the resources available to you as a team (funding, contacts - anything), what do you think the dream project would be for the Solar Boat Twente. Would it be different from what you are doing?
R: No, because our end goal as the Solar Boat Twente is to show, especially to the maritime industry, that it can be done differently; in a more sustainable and innovative way. We are already doing this with the resources we have, but even if we had all the resources at the end, our end goal would remain the same.
C: It is excellent that you are already working on your dream project then, fully invested in it.
R: Yes, everyone is really motivated. You can really tell it by looking at the team members because nobody is doing this to earn money or EC credits.
C: What are the backgrounds of people in the team? You told us that there are eight engineers, but I understand that there are more people involved?
R: Yes, there are eight engineers they are also very multi-disciplinary. I am a Biomedical Engineer, we have a girl from Technical Medicine we have an Electrical Engineer, we have a Mechanical Engineer and a guy from Computer Science. In the communication team, we have a member from Business Administration. No student did meet each other before joining this team. It is an exciting project and environment.
C: Isn’t it also noteworthy that all the components of the team are equally important to create such a project? This project enables students to gain such an experience at this young age.
R: Yes, a lot of people also do this to gain experience for the work-life and show companies that they can work in such a team. You need the be very flexible because the task will change over the year. Sometimes you need more money, and you do more promotional stuff and sometimes you need more engineers. In the end, it is all for the same goal, and that is what keeps us motivated.
C: What are the biggest challenges that the team faces?
R: This year, the biggest challenge is especially money because a lot of financiers’ innovation departments are having a hard time because of Coronavirus. Typically, we do have a lot of interactions with companies; we visit a lot of people to explain what we do. Still, this year it will be a challenging task because a lot of it will be online. When the effects of the virus are less, we hope we can start to produce our parts and get ready for the race that is next summer.
C: In your website, I realized that you have a lot of partners. What does collaboration mean for student-led organizations like yours? How does working with partners help you improve what you are doing? What type of support do you get?
R: We have different collaborations. Some sponsors want exposure since not everyone can work in innovation and sustainability, and they just want to support someone who can do it. Other companies have a more technical focus, for instance, if they are producing parts, we go to them with what we want and work on various possibilities.
C: Since transportation of goods composes a big part of carbon emissions, I want to ask perhaps a somewhat obvious question, but how the work you do can be translated into a more sustainable future in this field?
R: The current boat is, of course, tiny but the technology and the techniques that we use can be scaled into bigger sizes. Maybe right now it is not very efficient to cover a massive ship with solar panels (the efficiency is %24). If there are higher efficiency panels soon, the examples in smaller scale are already here, and they can be upscaled. The innovative companies that work in the maritime sector are already using our boats as prototypes and see what works and what does not. It is more like an experimental project to them.
C: And you can see, as engineers, that it is possible to apply this, right?
R: Yes. And the fact that they see a boat that is powered by the sun is already a cool picture. A month ago, we were sailing around the city centre in the canals. A lot of people were looking at our boat and appreciating the fact that it is solar-powered.
C: What do you think about the possibility of hybrid in the maritime industry - like in the automotive industry?
R: For hybrid options, we are currently looking at the hydrogen energy. Because the energy density of the battery is not that high, and you are always dependent on the sun. So indeed, a hybrid system can work. The organization that we are racing for - called Solar Sport One, have more teams that work on solar boats and they also research hydrogen. So, maybe being utterly dependent on solar might not be possible in the short term, so they are looking for ways to combine with such sustainable practices.
C: Which points do you improve with new boats each year, or are you aiming to have a multi-use ship like the most recent one?
R: It differs. This year we are working further on the last year’s boat. Because of the virus they could not get it entirely done. So, we are working on it. It also depends on what are the goals for that given year. The races are most of the time in freshwater, but in the saltwater, we observed that it is different. The boat was destroyed by the saltwater.
C: How do you think solar boat races contribute to innovation in the solar energy industry? Do you think it is purely for awareness, or are there additional motivations behind these races?
R: It is like Formula 1. It is not like we are not sharing information; for instance, we are working with a partner that is already working with another university’s team. Competition is just needed to try to do better. Yet as I mentioned, the end goal overall is the same, and it is that to show the world this can be done sustainably. It promotes innovation and gives exposure to participating schools.
C: Anything you would like to add? Any upcoming news you want to mention?
R: Currently, we have people from only the University of Twente, but we are open to welcome people from your program. If anyone is interested in joining our team, they can contact us. We are an international student team. We have people from New Zealand and Bolivia. Finally, to remind our end goal – we want to show the maritime sector and the world that it can be done differently.
C: Thank you very much for your time!
Note: This interview is transcribed and edited by the SEE team member Merve Özcaner and all images are the courtesy of Solar Boat Twente.