Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Sailing toward the record books

Two students in the department of mechanical engineering are looking for members to join their new club. Their quest: to break the current land speed record for a vehicle powered solely by wind.

If all goes according to plan, members of the student-run Land Yacht Speed Record club will travel to the plains of a dry lake bed in Nevada in March to witness a high-speed land yacht racing competition for the first time. There, competitors will gather to showcase their latest vehicle designs and attempt to smash the current record held by Americans Bob Schumacher and Bob Dill. Their "Iron Duck" craft reached a blazing speed of 116.7 mph in 1999.

One of the most formidable competitors is the Ecotricity-Greenbird team—a partnership between British engineer Richard Jenkins and eco-businessman Dale Vince. The vibrant Greenbird’s solid vertical sail is reminiscent of an aircraft wing. The sail and other aspects of the craft’s futuristic design enables it to travel up to five times the speed of wind, depending on weather and surface conditions.

Ed Stilson

Edward Stilson ’11, and Luke Yoder ’11, hope that by 2011 another bird—the Mountain Hawk—will join the Greenbird and the rest of the flock in high-speed pursuit of the Iron Duck’s record.

The research behind the record chase

The idea for the project began last year, when Stilson approached Joachim Grenestedt, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, to discuss potential topics for a research project involving composites. His initial idea was to construct competitive supermileage cars. Then Grenestedt asked him if he would be interested in building a wind-powered "land yacht" that would challenge the existing land-speed record.

Intrigued by the challenge, Stilson sold the project idea to fellow mechanical engineering student Yoder. They immediately began developing timeline for construction with the help of Grenestedt.

"I think that by getting an early start on this project we have given ourselves a good timeline to achieve our goals," Stilson said. "We have a lot to learn but expect that every semester the classes we take will give us more knowledge that we can apply to the project."

The team will look to Grenestedt as their project’s adviser. Grenestedt has conducted a wealth of research on mechanics of composite materials and structures.

"Professor Grenestedt is a remarkable aerodynamicist and amazing with composites," Stilson said. "He can handle huge projects like these and point us in the right direction. He is a great asset because he will not just tell us the answer—he lets us have the control and make our own mistakes."

To achieve these incredible speeds without engine power, the team will have to combine principles of physics, aerodynamics, composite materials and wind technology. Besides technical details, weather and surface conditions factor into how fast the craft will travel. The competition is held on a hard and flat natural surface, like the dry lake bed in Nevada. The record was set with wind speeds around 30 mph, so competitors hope for similar conditions.

"Overall, there is a lot of room for innovation in land yacht designs," Yoder said. "We really enjoy that about our project because there are a lot of factors we can play around with, from fuselage design to tire design to wind power technologies."

One of the greatest hurdles that the team must overcome is testing tires and tire set-ups.

"We want to do a lot of research into tires because we think the competition hasn’t done their homework," Yoder said. "It won’t make or break design, but it may give us a leg up on the competition."

Constructing a winning team

Last semester, Stilson and Yoder began their first task of testing different tire set-ups. They built a testing rig to test how different tire combinations would affect the lateral load and drag force of the craft. The two engineers stayed after their exams last May to put in 12-hour days designing and fabricating the testing machine.

Next, Stilson and Yoder want to build a remote-control prototype scaled down to one-third the size of an actual land yacht. The final vessel will be immense, ranging from 30 to 40 feet long. In March, the team hopes to travel to Nevada to test their tire rig on the racing surface.

By the beginning of their junior year, the team plans to have finalized the design of their craft so that they can begin construction on a working craft. If all goes according to plan, Stilson and Yoder will return to the salt flats of Nevada during the spring of their senior year to attempt to break the record -- just in time for graduation.

The road to Nevada will not be easy; the Greenbird is a culmination of 10 years of work, thousands of man hours, several prototype vehicles, and support through funding and sponsorships. Stilson and Yoder are actively recruiting students who are willing to dedicate themselves to the project.

"We are the only two dedicated members right now," Stilson said. "We definitely can’t handle this project on our own. This semester we are focused on expanding our team. We need people who have the practical experience and are willing to push themselves and commit time to this project."

The team is not only looking for engineering majors but business students who can market their project to potential sponsors. They are also seeking art majors who can help with creative ways to spread the word and contribute to the aesthetics of the craft itself.

"We have so many resources at Lehigh," Stilson said. "The project's engine is the students behind it and our drive to succeed. We're forming a team and running it like a business. And people around campus are hearing about the project and showing genuine enthusiasm for its potential."

If you are interested in joining the club, contact Edward Stilson.

—Caitlyn Kennedy

Posted on Monday, November 03, 2008

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