Energy Observer, the hydrogen-powered zero-emission research vessel, tested a new ‘wind power thruster’ during its trip from Amsterdam to Hamburg and has proclaimed the system a success.
Research mission founder and EO Captain Victorien Erussard said “I am very satisfied with this first assessment. The Oceanwings system is an excellent one that allows us to go faster and use less energy.”
The two towers of the rigid wingsails at the heart of the design cut a striking figure coming in to the Port of Hamburg, rising 12m/40ft above each pontoon of the 30m/100ft catamaran.
‘Vertical airplane wings’
Rigid wingsails are essentially aircraft wings turned upright that provide horizontal ‘lift’ (instead of vertical) to assist the boat being on tack.
The effectiveness of wingsails in terms of speed and efficiency were proven in the 2010 America’s Cup, and French industrial group CNIM has been working with naval architects VPLP Designs to bring the technology to large scale boats and commercial shipping.
In the video below Marc Van Peteghem of VPLP gives a good explanation of the concept and how it is being adapted for the Energy Observer.
The challenge is that while the rigidity of the sails is desirable in some ways, they are more difficult to adjust and furl than traditional sails.
“We wanted to offer a safe, simple and automatable wind propulsion system, and therefore developed a concept of a collapsible and reusable rig,” Van Peteghem says. “Energy Observer will enable us to analyze how well the coupled wings work.”
Wingsails produce electricity for hydrogen electrolysis
The efficiency of the windthruster configuration as a pure propulsion solution is only part of the story. One of the concepts that Energy Observer is using to sail without carbon emissions is to create the fuel for its hydrogen engines from the sea water the boat travels through.
It is done through a method called electrolysis which, as the name suggests, requires electricity.
The necessary electricity comes from two sources: the 130m2 / 1400sq.ft of solar panels on the EO’s hull, and hydro-generation occurring when the engines act as electricity-generating turbines as the boat is moving.
Obviously, the faster or more efficiently the boat can move through water, the more electricity can be generated. Which is where the Oceanwings can open the way to hydrogen production during navigation.
The Energy Observer has now been in operation for just over 2 years. The different phases of its goal of travelling the world on hydrogen, wind and solar power started with an initial tour around its home country of France, followed by a Mediterranean tour and its current Northern Europe trip.
Energy Observer on its Northern Europe leg
Between each there have been stays in dry dock to assess its progress and systems, and install new ones for further research.
On its France and Mediterranean legs (10,000 nautical miles and 33 ports) the boat had vertical axis wind turbines on its pontoons that were effective in generating electricity for the hydrogen/electrolysis but did not contribute to propulsion. The Oceanwings system is designed to do both and will continue to be tested as the odyssey continues.
After a stopover in Hamburg until May 6, Energy Observer will travel to Scotland, up the North Sea along the Scandinavian countries into the Arctic Circle and back down to London before returning to France to prepare for a trans Atlantic voyage.