Following hot on the heels of Solar Impulse, the world’s first airplane to complete a round-the-world trip powered solely by renewable energy, comes the Energy Observer, the first boat to attempt the same.
Nicknamed the “Solar Impulse of the seas”, the multi-hulled catamaran is currently in Saint-Malo, France, waiting to be fitted with its state of the art solar panels and wind turbines. The boat will be ready to set sail in February next year on a six-year voyage around the world.
The boat’s batteries, which in turn will run the electric motors, will be powered by the solar and wind energy it captures on good weather days. However, as that is not always guaranteed, it will also be fitted with electrolysis equipment, which breaks down water into its component elements, to generate its own hydrogen.
"We are going to be the first boat with an autonomous means of producing hydrogen," explained skipper Victorien Erussard, who initiated the project along with fellow Frenchman Jacques Delafosse, a documentary filmmaker and professional scuba diver, to AFP.
"If there's no Sun or wind, or if it's night, stored hydrogen – generated by electrolysis powered by the solar panels and two wind turbines – will take over," Erussard said.
The Energy Observer already comes with an interesting back-story. In 1994, it won the Jules Verne trophy for a team sailing non-stop around the world. It was then bought for €500,000 ($562,000) and extended by another 6 meters (20 feet) to bring it up to 30.5 meters (100 feet), ready for its redesign as a fossil fuel-free vessel.
It was designed in collaboration with CEA Liten (Laboratory for Innovation in New Energy Technologies and Nanomaterials), a European research institute based in France dedicated to exploring renewable energy technologies, and a team of naval architects at a cost of €4.2 million ($4.72 million), and will serve as a floating lab for CEA Liten during this trip.
Energy Observer at its current home in Saint-Malo. Pierrick Contin/Energy Observer
Florence Lambert, director of CEA Liten, called the boat “emblematic of what will be the energy networks of tomorrow, with solutions that could even be used within five years… The houses of tomorrow could incorporate a system of hydrogen storage, which is produced during the summer months and then used in the winter."
The Energy Observer’s world tour will start with a crossing of the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, with multiple scientists, researchers, engineers, journalists, and even artists set to sail on it.
Although not all the funding required – a predicted €4 million ($4.5 million) a year – has been secured, the team are taking inspiration from Solar Impulse and its ground-breaking, awareness-raising achievement. After all, it accomplished "what everyone said was impossible," according to Delafosse. So, come February, watch this space.