Forget the Bill Gates hydrogen yacht – this one makes clean fuel as it sails!!

The Bill Gates hydrogen yacht is getting a LOT of coverage, but here is a boat –  Energy Observer – that is about to go from France to Asia creating its own hydrogen fuel as it travels!

Don’t get us wrong, we applaud every advance in which boats and ships move from burning fossil fuels to running on electricity. And it is great that Bill Gates is reportedly purchasing  the concept yacht from designer Sinot for $500M and in turn bringing awareness to hydrogen as a clean fuel for shipping. 

But the Energy Observer (EO), a research vessel with the goal of circumnavigating the globe with absolutely zero emissions, has already sailed 20,000 miles (33,000 kilometres) – around the Mediterranean, all over Europe and right up into the arctic circle – using solar power, wind power and the sea water it travels through to create the hydrogen for the fuel cells that run its electric engine.

Bill Gates hydrogen yacht still needs diesel

Bill Gates hydrogen yacht - artists conceptionThe Gates yacht uses liquid hydrogen and burns it, just like in a gas motor, to run its engines to drive propellers – the good thing being that the only exhaust is water. Like many other hydrogen and electric ships, though, it needs diesel backup in case they run out of hydrogen somewhere in the middle of the Pacific or Atlantic where fuelling stations are few and far between, to say the least. For Energy Observer, the ocean IS the fuelling station.

How does it do that? Well, first, a quick summary of different means of propulsion. The Energy Observer doesn’t burn hydrogen, it uses hydrogen fuel cells. Stay with this for a moment.

Most cargo and cruise ships are actually electric boats

It isn’t a diesel motor that actually turns the propeller in most cargo and cruise ships, it is electric motors that do the propelling work. In terms of the environment, you might think this is wonderful, but those ships use diesel generators to create the electricity to run those electric motors, which creates a LOT of emissions. In fact, a large cruise or cargo ship can spew out as much particulate as one million cars.

Batteries, of course, can run electric motors, and so can hydrogen fuel cells, which function differently than liquid hydrogen. They are a bit like batteries in that they generate electricity through a chemical reaction, in this case between the hydrogen in the cell and oxygen in the air.

Hydrogen fuel cells obviously need hydrogen, water is made from hydrogen and oxygen – the H and O in H2O – and hydrogen can be harvested from water by using electricity to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. It’s called electrolysis. That’s how Energy Observer gets the hydrogen for its fuel cells. 

Energy Observer generates electricity to harvest hydrogen from the sea

When the Energy Observer is under sail, it obviously doesn’t need to run its electric motors. So the solar panels store their electricity in a regular type of battery, lithium-ion in this case. There is also something called a regeneration system whereby the propellers of the motors are turned by the moving through the water when the EO is under sail. That electricity is also stored in batteries.

schematic showing how hydrogen creation and energy storage on energy observer

The generated electricity can also be used in the electrolysis process to separate hydrogen from the sea water – which is used in fuel cells. Which create electricity – which drives the motor.

Zero emission!

Click on the image of the ship on the left to be taken to an interactive image on the Energy Observer site which explains it bit by bit when you click on each of the numbers.


Energy Observer is obviously a remarkable vessel. In a nutshell the mission is to sail around the world with zero emissions to prove the feasibility of the concept  and “optimize the technologies on board our floating laboratory in extreme environments using field experience to enable their large-scale application.” The leaders of the expedition and visionaries behind it are offshore sailing racer Victorien Erussard and marine explorer and filmmaker Jérôme Delafosse.

See all Plugboats articles about Energy Observer

Plugboats has written a number of articles about her progress and technological adjustments as she visited 15 different European cities, and now she is about to make the next leap: travelling from Europe to Asia with zero emissions.

She has been in dry dock at her home port of St. Malo, France  since September, undergoing some maintenance and adding some improved technology like a new fuel cell system from Toyota for the next portion. (see video below) 

So while the Bill Gates hydrogen yacht (which needs diesel backup) is reported to be ready  in 2024…Energy Observer with its sails and solar panels and fuel cells is scheduled to leave St. Malo on February 17th and set out for Asia, harvesting and generating energy as she moves. Bon voyage!!

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