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Plugboats: IONized


Mar 23, 2023

There is always a lot of action going on at boat shows, but I was a bit startled at the Miami show to be walking along checking out exhibitors when just to my right I heard the music of Jimmy Buffett start up and looked over to see a small machine that was blinking away and lighting up like a robot from Star Wars.

It turned out to be a new electric boat motor. From a company called Ilmor.

It’s not a name I was familiar with, but I have never been a big fan of car racing. Ilmor is apparently an IndyCar legend, a high-performance motor manufacturer that has won more races than any other engine builder. They also make high power boat motors, including the world’s most powerful tow-sports engine, the 632 horsepower Supercharged 6.2L.

This is their first electric motor, the ION. They introduced it to the world last November at METSTRADE, the European marine industry show, and it made its North American debut in Miami in January.

With 6kW of power (about 10HP), it is an understatement to say the ION is considerably different from what Ilmor is best known for. So why would a company that started out working with Penske Racing decide to make a small electric outboard?

Ilmor Electrical Engineer Jon Roos said that you only need to watch what’s happening in EVs and even auto racing, with the E1 circuit, to know that electric motors are going to be increasingly popular. The theory was to ‘get their feet wet’ with a small motor and grow from there.

Ion 2 275Once the engineering team was unleashed, though, it seems they couldn’t stop themselves. They may not have built a lot of raw power into the ION, but they have designed a very distinctive futuristic unit with the electronic and digital equivalent of bells and whistles.

The motor of the ION is direct drive, under the water line, like many small electric outboards. That means the shaft and cowling are there to hold cables and electronics like the BMS (Battery Monitoring System) rather than a bulky powerhead. That creates a lot of design freedom, and the cowling of the ION looks a bit like a 21st century version of a medieval knight’s helmet.

Along the stern side of the cowling the team inserted a strip of LED lights. The thinking behind this was a safety reason. The outboard will obviously be going onto small boats – although Ilmor also sees a market in pontoon boats – but in either case there is likely to be people swimming nearby. Since electric motors are next to silent, the idea was to have red lights pulsing along the cowling to let those swimmers know when the motor is in operation.

Then the fun took over. Presumably once you have decided to have a strip of LED lights, it is easy to make them change colour, and pulse and light up in different combinations, with different timings…so the engineers took full advantage of it. And if you’re going to have a light show, you may as well have sound.

So in addition to the ‘Safety’ mode, there is also a ‘Charging’ mode, where green lights run up the cowling accompanied by extraterrestrial bubbling noises. There are a couple of music configurations where the lights pulse in coordination with the tunes. The Jimmy Buffett music is called ‘Beach Mode’, and there is also a ‘Dance’ mode with appropriate funk and ‘Dock’ mode featuring ‘Yacht Rock’ There is also a ‘Fireworks’ mode with random lights and various sound effects.

The team at the Ilmor booth were obviously having a good laugh with this, and obviously had a good time designing the electric outboard as a change from working on ultra-high performance ICE units. But they did apply their technical expertise to assuring the ION is up to their standards.

It has a ‘boost’ switch that ups the power to 7kW when engaged, integrated power tilt/trim and automatic seaweed detection. It runs on a 48V platform, which provides lots of leeway in what batteries can be matched with the motor.

Roos said they are working with both lithium-ion and lead acid battery suppliers. The idea is that small dinghies and fishing boat owners might prefer the light weight of li-ion, but pontoon boat owners could opt for the heavier, but much cheaper, lead acid solution. The company says the motor can power a 24′ (7.3 meter) pontoon boat at 6 knots (7 mph or 11 km/h).

Jeff Butler 400The design of the ION is sure to stand out at any dock or on the water, no matter what kind of boat it is on. I can imagine that just when the onlookers are about to ask ‘what is that?’ the proud owner will punch in the ‘Dance’ mode and get the same startled reaction I gave at the boat show in Miami.

Production units of the ION should be available in the next few months and will be sold through a dealer network.

Jeff Butler is based in Toronto and is the Editor/Publisher of plugboats.com, the international website covering everything electric boats and boating. He is also President of the Electric Boat Association of Canada and is busy preparing to bring electric motor boat racing and exhibitions to Toronto Harbour in 2023 for the first Toronto Solar Boat Races.

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