The incredible solar yacht SolarImpact turned more than a few heads almost exactly a year ago at the Dusseldorf Boat Show, and now its creators are ready to unveil the next incarnation at this year’s show January 18.
The headlines last February were “This yacht could sail around the world using only the sun“. That is still true, and the magnitude of that achievement is as astounding as it was 12 months ago. On top of that, the technology used is even more desperately needed now, as the evidence and effect of climate change becomes clearer each day.
Ocean yacht with all of the luxury, none of the diesel
The idea for a boat that can travel anywhere without using fossil fuels came from Werner Vögelie, a yachting visionary who made enough money as Head of R&D for a software company (sold for $140M) that he could build the yacht of his dreams and spend the rest of his life at sea.
It’s difficult, though, for an inventive man (he is the holder of two international software patents) to not invent. “I tried to understand what was going wrong in shipping and especially in the yacht industry” he says. “After 5 years of constant search for answers, I realized that the senseless burning of hundreds of tons of diesel for the pleasure of the few can actually come to an end. In 1740 and 1938, two clever people showed that ships can consume 6-8 times less energy. But without extremely powerful hardware and highly complex software, their findings were worthless. Until now.” We’ll get to the neglected innovations that are employed on the SolarImpact, but first let’s look at a bit of her journey.
Team of visionaries, tinkerers, technicians, scientists
Vögelie has always seen his main attribute as being able to bring together the people needed to realize his visions, so in February of 2017 he started gathering a team to design a 24m / 78 foot yacht with 3 decks, 250 square metres / 2,500 sq. ft of luxurious living space with full on deluxe kitchens, amenities and lounging areas, 4 double bedrooms, one master bedroom…and able to travel around the world with zero emissions.
As it happened, another retiree who couldn’t keep retired came on his radar. Ulrich Käppler co-founded one of Germany’s largest and most innovative sheet metal processors, supplying product for everything from the aviation industry, to the auto industry to the medical technology sector. He retired in 2015 after 23 years in the business.
But as he told the German newspaper Sächsische Zeitung “If you have been an entrepreneur, you can’t just let go and lie down in the sun chair on an island”. A sailor and sea lover like Vögelie, he was soon convinced to bring his expertise and enthusiasm to the SolarImpact team.
The team continued to grow, adding technicians, tinkerers, scientists and designers, who went through countless theoretical calculations leading up to model tests in research institutes and self-propelled models in the sea.
By August of 2018 the company had the technology worked out, an arresting and unforgettable boat design by Marlena Ratajska and a 3D virtual presentation they were ready to take to the Cannes Yachting Festival to get feedback. SolarImpact Chairman Andreas Bascha said at the time “If everything works out, then we will present the first finished boat there in a year.”
Incredible feedback for an incredible yacht
It was quite the feedback! Lifestyle sites Robb Report, GQ, and FOUR; news sites like CNN; boating magazines SuperYacht, Motorboat and Yachting, boote and Barche as well as sites like designboom and Yanko Design were all enthralled by the futuristic look and eco-friendly technology.
After that exciting debut, SolarImpact remained largely quiet. They went back to Cannes in September 2019, as promised, but not with a finished boat.
On November 14 they put up the large blurred image you see at the top of this article on their facebook page, and then added a message to the same image on their site that the Dusseldorf Boat Show would see the appearance of V2.0. There were no links and no further information, until today at about 15:00 GMT. With Dusseldorf only days away the SolarImpact site is now packed with all of the information and stats, along with all new photos of the new version.
Ready to unveil at Dusseldorf Boat Show 2020
The biggest and most noticeable change from 2019 is the outward appearance. The technical specifications for SolarImpact are virtually identical to what they were a year ago: 24metres long, 11 metre beam, 2 X 500kW electric motors, we now know there is an 800kW battery pack.
The new design, though, by Roland Friedberger, takes the original concept and revises it to make the boat look a little bit – emphasis on little bit – more conventional than Version 1.0. Even with the slightly more conventional look, it is a testament to the abilities of the shipbuilders, Schaaf Yachtbau, to bring the vision to reality.
The technology behind a solar yacht that can go around the world
Now to the 1740 and 1938 technologies Werner Vögelie referred to that underpin SolarImpact’s ability to travel without combustion. 1740 is the year that Benjamin Franklin in North America and Andrew Gordon in Scotland both came up with the concept of primitive electrostatic powered devices that developed and evolved into the permanent magnet motors that propel the SolarImpact today.
And it was in 1938 that Canadian Frederick G. Creed came up with a way to drastically reduce the effect of waves on a boat’s progress. It is called Small-Waterplane-Area Twin Hull construction, now known as SWATH.
It’s based on the idea that a boat sways and pitches because it floats on top of the water and feels the full effect of the surface waves going up and down and sideways. But if you put the buoyancy /flotation elements of the boat UNDERwater, where there are no waves, the effect of water motion on the boat is reduced.
Essentially, you add torpeedo-like pontoons under the Twin Hulls of a catamaran. The boat then gets its flotation from the two torpeedoes, so the catamaran hulls (which are necessary because you have to attach the boat body to something) actually barely touch the water. Pitch and roll are reduced with the SWATH system – as well as fuel-consuming drag. The illustration demonstrates how and why it works. (There is a more detailed explanation and diagram on the SolarImpact site.)
280 square metres of solar panels
One of the reasons SWATH boats haven’t been adopted for general usage (they’re very popular in workboats) is that if the catamaran hulls are out of the water, where do you put the engines (and more important) the propellers? Ideally you want them to run out of the torpedo-shaped SWATH units, but those units need to be pretty narrow, and fitting diesel motors into them has been problematic.
But what if you had, say, a smaller but still powerful and efficient motor, like, maybe…hmmmm…an electric motor?
That’s exactly where the SolarImpact’s motors are. Inside the ‘torpeedoes. And while the electric motors may be relatively light, we know that the batteries aren’t. So the designers of the SolarImpact ingeniously worked with the wizards at Kreisel batteries (who put systems into all kind of tricky things, like this gorgeous Frauscher 750 Mirage electric runabout) to stack the batteries inside the pillars that attach the torpeedoes to the boat’s main body.
So with this fuel efficient, stable luxury yacht, all we need to sail around the world without spewing carbon into the atmosphere is the sun – and 280 square metres / 2,450 sq. ft. of solar panels from Solbian – the company that also put the solar panels on the Energy Observer research vessel and the Malizia II yacht that took Great Thunberg from Sweden to New York back in August.
The final element: advanced monitoring and control software
The final element of getting all of this to work magnificently goes back to Werner Vögelie’s days in software. The SolarImpact has an extremely sophisticated monitoring system that analyzes data constantly – including weather forecasts – to figure out the best way the motors and batteries should be used to propel the ship (at a maximum speed of 20 knots!) while still long with running the living amenities that every luxury yacht needs.
There is a lot of focus right now on how much diesel is burned by cargo and cruise ships, but big yachts and superyachts also rely heavily on fossil fuels. Hopefully the people who can afford these boats will allocate some of their money to zero emission systems like that of the SolarImpact that not only keep unnecessary carbon out of the atmosphere, but also provide a silent, luxuriously smooth ride over the waterways of our beautiful planet.