Clean hydrogen ship completes 9,000 km Atlantic crossing

The Energy Observer hydrogen ship and her crew have successfully completed the latest stage in their round the world odyssey – a 9,000 km (5,600 mi) transatlantic voyage achieved with zero emissions of carbon or fine particles.

In a dramatic demonstration of what the future of ship propulsion can be, the research vessel travelled from Saint-Malo, France to Fort-de-France, Martinique using nothing but solar and wind energy, electric motors, batteries and clean hydrogen generated from the ocean water it sailed through.

Hydrogen ship crew on the deck of the Energy Observer with Martinique in the backgroundSpeaking about the historic voyage and what it means for the future, Captain Victorien Erussard said “Crossing the Atlantic with this floating laboratory sends a powerful message to the decision-makers as it demonstrates the supreme reliability and resilience of our low-carbon systems. We can and must switch energy models. Massive investment for economic recovery is needed to enable us to build a whole new world, which no longer involves fossil fuels.

Energy Observer left France at beginning of pandemic

When the crew left Saint-Malo on March 3 the world was a much different place. The first regional coronavirus lockdowns had been instituted in Italy, but there were less than 100,000 confirmed cases worldwide and barely more than 200 in France.

3 crew members of hydrogen ship sitting on solar panelled deck in middle of the AtlanticThe original plan for Energy Observer was for the crew to sail to the Canary Islands, have a brief technical stopover, then have expedition co-founders Erussard and Jérôme Delafosse join them for the main event –  a four month 37,000 kilometre (23,000 mi) voyage. They were scheduled to cross the Atlantic, go through the Panama Canal, on to Hawaii and across the Pacific to Japan for July where they would take part in the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics.

The announcement of the Game postponement happened the day before the hydrogen ship arrived in the Canaries, but it was already clear that their plans would need to change. The first thing was that the crew would not disembark in Tenerife, but isolate on the ship as provisions were brought to a service pontoon boat. The second thing was that Messrs. Erussard and Delafosse were forced to abandon their plan of joining the crew.

Plans changed, goals remain

The transatlantic crossing, as impressive as it is, is only one part in the 4th year of Energy Observer’s 7 year odyssey. Before this she had already travelled 33,000 km (20,000 miles) and visited 48 ports in 28 countries around the Mediterranean and in Northern Europe. Last June she was the first hydrogen ship – and first all-renewable energy zero-emission vessel – to reach the Arctic, visiting the island of Spitsbergen, Norway at latitude 78°N.

Along the way hundreds of thousands of people have come out to visit the ship in port and attend exhibitions and seminars about renewable energy and the health of our oceans and waters.

Hydrogen ship captain Eroussard with French President Emannuel Macron and a sign saying 'Make our planet great again'The primary goals of the seven year, 100 stopover mission are to “Prove to citizens, decision-makers and businesses that the ecological transition is underway” and gain knowledge about carbon-free propulsion that can be applied to the thousands of cargo and other ships that emit more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 and GHGs each year. This transatlantic crossing is a huge step in showing that extended and demanding ocean voyages can be accomplished without fossil fuels.

Viable green solutions moving forward

Energy Observer is not alone in proving that gas and oil aren’t necessary to move boats long distances. A solar powered luxury catamaran from Silent Yachts crossed the Atlantic in 2018 and is available in hull lengths of 55, 60 and 80 feet (which can also be chartered). There is also the futuristic SolarImpact superyacht that was exhibited this year at BOOT Dusseldorf.

Hopefully these kinds of boats can lead to a viable transition from fossil fuels as we globally contemplate and confront both the immediate threats of the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing dangers of a changing climate.

As M. Delafosse said: “Our vessel is a floating laboratory, but it is also a symbol that prefigures the world of tomorrow: consuming only the energy we produce, producing green energy on a massive scale at an affordable cost, valuing the people who make, who put their know-how at the service of concrete solutions for the energy, social and environmental transition.”

How it works:
Hydrogen ship gets its fuel from sun, wind and sea

We’ve written about the Energy Observer’s multi-faceted propulsion system before (click here to  see all of the stories) but in a nutshell this is how it works:

  • Solar panels: The deck of EO is covered in 202 square metres (2,100 square feet) of custom solar panels from Solbian and the electricity from them is stored in batteries.
  • ‘Sails’: The two sails of EO are actually Oceanwings from the company VPLP that were pioneered on America’s Cup boats. They are 12m (40′) vertical wingsails, each with a surface area of 31.5 m²  (350 sq ft) that can rotate 360° and are computer controlled to adjust for changing wind conditions.
  • Hydrogenerating propeller: When the ship is sailing under wind power, the movement of the water spins the propeller of the electric motor in the opposite of its usual direction, making  the electric motor a turbine that generates electricity that is also stored in the batteries
  • Clean hydrogen: The electricity in the batteries is used in electrolysis to separate hydrogen from the oxygen in the seawater EO collects and purifies. (For drinking, also).
  • Fuel cells: the clean hydrogen (nothing was burned to create the energy for the electrolysis) is used in the freshly installed Toyota fuel cells that in turn run the ship’s electric motor as necessary
Exciting things are happening every day in electric boats and boating.
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