February 12, 2015

Engines on the way out

WILL NICE QUIET electric motors take over from diesel and gas engines on small boats? Given the current state of evolution of the electric motor and its batteries, it seems unlikely to happen soon. Fossil-fuel engines have, after all, become very reliable and economical. But I believe electricity will eventually take over.

We’ll need better, lighter batteries or other methods of storing electricity, and more efficient ways of generating it from sunlight or chemicals, but I believe we’ll eventually get there.

In any case, history tells us that we should believe the unlikely, if not the impossible. For example, according to the eminent engineer Benjamin H. Latrobe, there was no way that a steam engine could be used to propel boats. No way.

Now, this man was no lightweight. For a start, he designed the United States Capitol. In a paper delivered to the American Philosophical Society in 1803, he listed the reasons why:

1. The weight of the engine and the fuel.

2. The large space it occupies.

3. The tendency of its action to rack the vessel and render it leaky.

4. The expense of maintenance.

5. The irregularity of its motion, and the motion of the water in the boiler and the cistern, and of the fuel-vessel in rough water.

6. The difficulty arising from the liability of the paddles to break, if light, and from the weight if made strong.

Well, Latrobe might have been eminent, but he was also wrong. He lacked foresight and he lacked faith.

I don’t have much in the way of foresight, but I have lots of faith, which is why I say diesel and gasoline are on the way out. It will take a while, certainly, but the writing is on the wall and the electric motor is coming to the bilge. In its turn, it might be overtaken by some other form of propulsion. But meanwhile, I can’t wait.

Today’s Thought
The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance — the idea that anything is possible.
— Ray Bradbury

“You look lonely.”
“Yeah, my wife’s gone to the West Indies.”
“No, it was her own idea.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Todd Heywood said...

Hi John,

You might be interested in this book:


And while I'm here, if I may be so bold, how come you don't have a boat at the moment? :-)


John Vigor said...

Thanks for the book recommendation Todd. As for my boatless state, I wrecked my back pulling up the anchor. Thought I would never be able to do that again. Crushed a couple of vertebrae so that they impinged on the nerve. Suddenly I'm an inch shorter than I used to be and boatless. But I'm getting used to the pain, and looking at boats again. You never know.


John V.

Adventures of Salacia said...

I am at a cross roads with my Alberg 30 propulsion. I am starting a refit and what to remove the Atomic 4 that is currently in the boat. It runs perfectly fine, infact it was rebuilt in 2008 by Moyer marine. But wife and I want to do some extended cruising and just feel like the spae that the A4 take up could be better utilized. James Baldwin of Atomvoyages.com has been install motor wells in the lazarette and this seems intriguing but I just can"t see myself cutting a large hole to install it.
I have been considering and seriously looking at electric. I am, as you pointed out, concerned with distance. A nice new diesel would use half the fuel of my current Atomic and double my range, but electric would cut it. It would cut it to probably 1/8th what my range is currently.
Anyway I'm rambling but I, too, am hopeful we can bring battery technology where it needs to be so it can give at least a 40-mile range on a 30fter.

Don P said...

I think you are right about electric drive being the future. Motors appear to be there now and batteries, while not there yet, are coming along. I predict the trend will be to electric motors and on board generators to keep them going on long runs. That will also satisfy the modern longing for microwaves, blenders,refrigerators etc. on board. It doesn't look promising for peaceful evenings at quiet anchorages.

Anonymous said...

I have had electric inboard motor since 2003 and still happy with it. But as said, you need to consider the batteries (in my case about the old engine's mass), your needed range, etc... though there was a German couple that went around the world with electric propulsion. If you have room for solar cells or small honda or similar generator that would also help... and you can use the engine as generator when sailing (some speed lost, though)