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Flipflopi project

Solar-electric taxi boat sets sail in Kenya

Published on: 18 April 2024

Experts from Newcastle University have helped innovate a solar-electric water taxi fabricated entirely from recycled plastic collected and manufactured in Kenya.

The Flipflopi Project, which built the world’s first 100% recycled plastic sailing dhow, has teamed up with Newcastle University engineering experts and ePropulsion, the makers of an innovative solar-electric propulsion system, to design and test their latest innovation.

The team has installed an innovative solar-electric engine on Flipflopi’s latest vessel, a boat taxi fabricated entirely from recycled plastic collected and manufactured on Lamu Island in Northern Kenya, now certified for seaworthiness. 

Over a month-long trial ferrying islanders on the solar-powered water taxi, the new eco-friendly system was found to match the speed of traditional petrol engines while being substantially cheaper to run and with zero emissions. 

Innovative solar-electric engine (©Flipflopi Project)

Fishing, cargo and passenger transport compatible

Dr Simon Benson, project lead at Newcastle University, said: “The pilot programme showed that electric propulsion is no longer just a climate solution for luxury cars, or for mass transit in high tech cities; it can contribute to solving environmental problems in lower resourced rural communities too.

“Since the solar panels can be fully recharged daily, on land and on the boat, this makes it a great option for short transit routes in coastal, lakeside and island communities across the world who use small open boats with outboard engines for fishing, cargo and passenger transport.”

The boat and its solar engine underwent this pilot as part of a broader Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) programme that is supporting the Flipflopi to research community-centered circular solutions including heritage boatbuilding to help solve the waste management and plastic pollution problem in peri-urban shoreline communities. 

The recycled plastic water taxi was built out of 1.2 tonnes of HDPE plastic that was recovered by the community-centred programme, and would otherwise have been burnt, dumped or destined for the ocean. The Flipflopi manufactures high-quality plastic lumber at the Lamu-based recovery and recycling centre which is then hand-crafted using traditional boat-building techniques by local craftsmen combined with new appropriate technology.  

'Our mission is to help solve plastic pollution'

Ali Skanda, Co-Founder of The Flipflopi Project, said: “Our mission is to help solve the plastic pollution crisis by supporting circular solutions in low-income maritime communities like ours.With our recycling and heritage boatbuilding centre, we are exploring how to create viable boat prototypes from plastic waste and preserving the indigenous craftsmanship of boatbuilding and furniture making for generations to come. If we can also adopt solar powered engines, we start to realise even greater opportunities for a greener and more sustainable future.”

The project is part of a wider set of objectives to determine the potential for holistic step-changes in addressing the environmental impact of working boats used in maritime and low-income communities like Lamu.

The project's success demonstrates the potential for artisanal boats made from waste plastics and equipped with electric engines and boat-mounted solar charging systems, paving the way for zero-emission transportation solutions. The research also highlights the need for improved support systems such as maintenance and hire-schemes to help more places adopt this technology, ensuring a greener future for marine transportation.

The solar electric engine project was made possible with the support of maritime engineering experts at Newcastle University led by Dr Simon Benson with funding from the UK government’s International Science Partnerships Fund.

Flipflopi are supported by the Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP) Programme that enabled the design and build of the water taxi itself. The project was turned to reality through collaborative partnerships with UK based ePropulsion who supplied the battery powered engine, and Kenyan based Solagen who supplied the solar systems. 

(Press Release adapted with thanks from Flipflopi)


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