Chinook: One Engineering Club’s Unique Race for Clean Energy

Every school has its own clubs, ranging from the pensive calm of chess league to the aggressive sprints of track and field. Yet few universities have anything close to Chinook, an innovative engineering team based in Montreal that designs, builds and races wind-powered cars in the Netherlands. Much more than fast, these cars could completely reinvent the clean energy industry.

“From the first time I heard about them, the team seemed like an amazing group of people,” said Patrice Rolland, a twenty-five-year-old student at Ecole de technologie superieure University, and the team’s current software engineer.

The word “chinook” comes from the wind that blows at intervals down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and just like those powerful gusts, Rolland is striving to design something that is beautiful, lightning-fast, and completely sustainable. In the global context of climate change and the ever-increasing demand for green energy, Chinook is racing for more than just a gold medal.

“What we make falls into the perfect intersection between art, technology and the environment,” said Rolland. “We’re committed to pushing the boundaries of energy efficiency.”

Though Chinook is completely run by students, the real world impact of their work extends far beyond the classroom. They have already been approached by the Royal Netherlands Navy regarding technologies used on their vehicle.. Not bad for a bunch of students “just building stuff on the weekends,” jokes Rolland.

When the school week ends, that’s when the real work begins for Rolland and his team. Piling into a team member’s garage, their work space looks exactly like one would imagine: circuit boards lie on the table, technicolor wires line the floor, ThinkPads light up the room, and the sounds of the Dropkick Murphys fill the air. It’s the fun and frenetic energy of young creatives following their passions.

If there’s an organizing tool for the team—besides indulging in a post-engineering happy hour at the pub—it’s their shared love of technology. “Our ThinkPads serve as the brain of the cars,” said Rolland. “We’ve installed various sensors throughout the car, which sends data in real time to our computers so we can make adjustments.”

With the push of a button, the Chinook team can orchestrate a myriad of controls in the cars, such as the rotation of the wind turbines, the pitch of the blades and changes in speed to obtain the best performance. Plus when racing day comes around, their durable ThinkPads can handle the unforgiving wind of the seaside racetrack.

Beyond the functional aspects of design, like wheel spacing and programming languages, Rolland can’t help himself from day dreaming about more playful endeavors. “This year I wanted to have the car connected to Twitter, so every time someone tweets about our car, it whistles,” he said with a smile. “Obviously, not priority number one.”

Racing Aeolus, organized by the Dutch Foundation of Wind Energy Events, is held in Den Helder on the shore of the North Sea. The goal is simple: achieve the greatest possible efficiency in terms of average speed ratio in relation to the wind speed. In 2014, Rolland’s team set a world record with an efficiency rating of 96.9%. But since then, Denmark has usurped their coveted position on the throne. In addition to pushing the boundaries of design, regaining their reputation as “Best in the World” is one of the key factors motivating Chinook.

“The week of the race is always stressful,” said Rolland. “Everyday we get up early, fix what broke the day before, load the car, do tests, and make constant adjustments. The nice thing about the ThinkPad is that it has an incredible battery life, so we can spend the whole day analyzing our results.”

This year, nothing will stand in the way of Rolland’s pursuit to claim the Grand Cup. Completely reinventing their designs, they are starting from scratch with an all new mechanical system and electronic components.

“It’s sleek; it looks like an amazing sportscar,” said Rolland. “The aerodynamics have been streamlined, the code has been updated. We’re going to connect Raspberry Pi to our existing systems to facilitate future improvements, such as bluetooth integration and the addition of a web server to get live data on the systems, like gears and wind speed.”

Regardless of the outcome of the race, Chinook’s pathbreaking ideas are reshaping how manufacturers are thinking about efficient design, both on and off the racetrack. “These designs could be used on boats to recharge batteries and supply heating, as well in turbine fields,” said Rolland. “Right now we’re focused on the race, but there are no restrictions to how this technology could be applied.”


Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories program.