Circumnavigating The Globe To Promote Renewable Energy

The yacht once known as Formula Tag was the largest catamaran ever built when it was launched in 1982. That was the year it won the Jules Verne Trophy for team Enza New Zealand with Sir Peter Blake as its captain. Today it has been rechristened the Energy Observer and is being refitted in France to run exclusively on electricity. When the work is complete, it will be powered by 100% renewable energy — solar, wind, and hydrogen. Then Captain Victorien Erussard and French marine documentary maker Jerome Delafosse plan to take the Energy Observer on a round the world zero emissions tour. Along the way, they will visit 101 ports in 50 countries.

Energy Observer powered by renewable energy

“It was then the biggest catamaran of all time. Sir Blake was also a sailor committed to environmental issues. So we are proud to navigate this boat. The Energy Observer team decided to give this legendary boat a new life. And now, we hope to build another legend around this boat,” Delafosse says.

CEA-Liten, a French research institute that focuses on renewables, developed Energy Observer’s power system from scratch. The primary source of power is the array of solar panels that occupy most of its surface. “The solar panels had to be specially designed by CEA-Liten for this peculiar application,” says Didier Bouix of CEA-Liten. “Sailors are always walking on the roof where solar panels are fitted. As a result, you have to use an anti-slip surface. The other part is the management of the electricity from the right and left side of the boat which is not the same.” The solar panels for the Energy Explorer will be 25% more efficient that conventional panels, Bouix says.

The boat is also equipped with a kite sail that serves a dual purpose. It assists in navigation and also generates power. The sail will be used during long voyages, like crossing the Atlantic Ocean, or when there’s wind at high altitude. While it is pulling the boat through the water, the ship’s propeller turns an electric motor to create electricity. Think of it as a version of regenerative braking. The system can make between 2 and 4 kilowatts of power.

“When the kite sail is operational, the forward motion of the boat will make the propeller rotate. The rotation of the propeller produces electrical power in the motor. This is a reverse mechanism of the normal propulsion in which electrical power is converted to mechanical power,” Bouix explains.

The boat also has two vertical wind turbines mounted near the stern that will produce up to 3 kilowatts  of power. Each turbine is 7 feet high and has been developed specifically for the Energy Observer. “It is the first time that we will have such turbines on dynamic support,” says Delafosse.

The Energy Observer will also manufacture its own hydrogen to use in a fuel cell to power its electric motors. First, sea water is desalinated by reverse osmosis. Then it is pumped into a solar powered electrolyzer which splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The fuel cell can produce 26 kWh of electrical energy from just 4 lbs of hydrogen. The hydrogen fuel will be used at night or whenever there is not sufficient energy available from the solar panels, wind turbines, or kite to power the vessel.

Erussard, a former merchant navy officer and a French sailing champion, says he wants to circumnavigate the world to deliver a powerful message similar to that of the Solar Impulse 2 solar powered airplane that completed a journey around the world last year. “We believe we can’t dissociate the need to adopt responsible and ecological behaviors from our living in a modern way. Being ecological should not be associated with living in a forest with no electricity and dry toilets. This is also a real challenge as we will have to find solutions that will allow this comfort after dispensing with the excessive kilograms that will require more energy to propel the vessel,” Delafosse says.


The boat will have six cabins equipped with a bathroom, shower and toilet. The crew will eat what they bring with them and also what they can capture from the sea. Delafosse says during their trip they will be visiting start-ups all over the world whose aim is to protect our planet through innovation. “This will include all the technological solutions aimed at protecting our planet such as creating corals using 3D printers, generating light from sea bacteria or creating plastic using seaweed,” he says.

Source: Discover Magazine  Hat tip to Leif Hansen of Bergen, Norway, who brought this story to my attention.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.