New Toyota fuel cells powering hydrogen ship to Tokyo

The Energy Observer hydrogen powered researched ship, outfitted with new Toyota fuel cells, has left her home port of St. Malo, France, off on a zero emission odyssey to participate in the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics, among other destinations.

This is the fourth segment of Energy Observer’s 6 year journey of circling the globe powered only by the wind, the sun and electric motors when neither of the first two are cooperating. She was supposed to set off on February 17, but has been hampered by bad weather in the North Atlantic.

Led by founders Victorien Erussard and Jérôme Delafosse, the ship and her crew have already sailed 18,000 nautical miles (33,330 km/ 27,000 mi) without burning a single drop of hydrocarbons.

  1. Journey I – Tour de France, July – December, 2017:  A trip around her home country with visits to 12 French centres including Paris, Marseilles, Bordeaux, ship building ports like Nantes, and a side trip to Monaco.
  2. Journey II – The Mediterranean, March – September, 2018: Setting off from France Energy Observer visited 21 more ports in Europe – Athens, Venice, Lisbon; Israel in the Middle East; Tangiers in Africa and islands like Cyprus, Ithaca and Malta along the way.
  3. Journey III – Northern Europe, March – October, 2019: Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, Stockholm, St. Petersburg…this trip Energy Observer was greeted in all of the great European ports, but most notably became the first zero-emission ship to ever travel above the Arctic Circle, venturing to the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago at 78°N.

See all of Plugboats’ coverage of the Energy Observer voyages

Revisions and improvements after each leg

Oceanwings wingsails diagram - computer controlled to turn, raise and lowerAfter each of the legs the Energy Observer has been improved and updated. For the France and Mediterranean legs Energy Observer experimented with two vertical-axis wind turbines that were replaced with the Oceanwings® windsails it now has. The automated rigid sails, essentially aircraft wings turned upright, were added to accelerate EO’s speed while under sail and better enable her to produce energy and hydrogen.

The specifically engineered solar panels by Solbian were also revised using data from early voyages to design new cell configurations and placements for maximizing efficiency.

After the Northern European leg, attention was given to exactly what would be needed to take EO on her longest stretch of sailing yet, and Toyota – one of the ship’s sponsors from the beginning – worked hand in hand with the EO engineers to take the fuel cells used in their Mirai vehicle and adapt them for maritime use.

First, a quick review of how Energy Observer is propelled: the solar panels collect energy that drives the electric motor with any extra electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries aboard the ship. The Oceanwings also generate electricity as they propel the boat, which is also stored in the batteries. Electricity from the batteries can be used to separate hydrogen from sea water that is gathered as the ship travels. This hydrogen is used in fuel cells, so the ship has two energy storage systems that can run the electric motor: battery and fuel cell.

Toyota fuel cells adapted for maritime use

Victorien Erussard, founder and captain of Energy Observer,  wanted Toyota on board with the project from the beginning, in part because the Mirai set the mark as the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle.

Toyota fuel cells fitted into limited space on Energy ObserverIn the space of only seven months the fuel cell system was re-engineered from one that powers a mid size automobile to one that has to meet the demands of a 10 metre and 34 ton ship sailing across the world’s oceans for thousands of kilometres.

It has proven its ability to handle large workloads in heavy duty trucks and Tokyo buses since 2016, but this is the first time it has been adapted for maritime use.

One of the biggest challenges was fitting everything into the space allotted for the system in the Energy Observer. It was made somewhat easier because the fuel cells from the beginning were designed to be a modular solution for a wide variety of configurations.

France to Tokyo to USA with zero emissions

Both Energy Observer and Toyota are leading lights in the advancement of hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota is aiming to develop a hydrogen society based on its Environmental Challenge 2050 and the research vessel has shown that it is possible to travel significant distances on water using only renewables and 100% clean hydrogen. With the Olympic flame being fueled by hydrogen for the first time in history, EO leaders Erussard and Delafosse have been asked to be part of the torch bearer team at the opening ceremonies in Tokyo Olympics

This fourth leg of the Energy Observer odyssey will be her biggest test yet. She will cross the two major oceans over the course of the next 10 months, with a transatlantic crossing, then a return journey across the Pacific:

  • Morocco or Canary Islands date TBD
  • Saint-Barthélemy, French West Indies date TBD
  • Negotiation of the Panama Canal (and stopover in Panama City) Date TBD
  • Hawaii date TBD
  • Tokyo, from July 24 July to August 16
  • San Francisco,  October 2 to 18
  • Los Angeles, November 13 to 22
  • San Diego, December 4 to 20. Stopover and and optimization refit
Exciting things are happening every day in electric boats and boating.
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