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Sun, wind and automotive tech … how the floating lab conquered the Atlantic

Energy Observer set out on its maiden transatlantic voyage from Saint Malo in France.
Energy Observer set out on its maiden transatlantic voyage from Saint Malo in France. © Credit: Energy Observer Productions - Amelie Conty

The French boat Energy Observer, dubbed the floating laboratory because of the different technologies it hosts, has successfully completed its first transatlantic journey from Saint Malo in north-western France to Martinique in the Caribbean Sea, thanks to solar energy, wind power and the fuel cell technology adopted from automobiles. 

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Developed by the Japanese automobile giant Toyota for its use in the model Mirai, the fuel cell system on Energy Observer underwent slight modifications compared to the one in the cars. 

“Some components are slightly different from the original Mirai parts, as the Mirai uses air cooling for the fuel cell components while this module has water cooling," Luc Vercauteren, Project Leader Powertrain at Toyota Motor Europe told RFI.

A fuel cell uses hydrogen and air to generate electricity that powers a vehicle. While in automobiles hydrogen it is sourced from gas stations, on Energy Observer it is extracted from the sea water by using the process of electrolysis. 

At the start of this year, the Toyota system replaced the previous fuel cell system prototype that has acted as a power source since the boat’s launch in 2017.

The Toyota fuel cell system was installed on Energy Observer in 2020.
The Toyota fuel cell system was installed on Energy Observer in 2020. © Credit: Energy Observer Productions - Amelie Conty

According to Vercauteren, their fuel cell system has been used in thousands of cars, buses and trucks. “That makes it very efficient and because it is industrially produced," he added. "It is affordable and reliable.”

Louis-Noel Vivies, managing director of Energy Observer, said the boat engineers were surprised by the new fuel cell.

“It is much lighter and more compact than the prototype we used earlier. And it is completely silent,” he told RFI.

The fuel cell system is integrated into the boat’s sophisticated energy management architecture which optimises the use of different renewable energy sources on the boat.

The fuel cell kicks into action automatically when the battery capacity falls below 20 percent. 

Normally, the batteries are charged by the sun and the wind.  The solar panels that cover an area of 202 square meters and the two automated, vertical wings that harness wind energy, are responsible for the boat’s direct electric propulsion. 

During cloudy days and at nights, the fuel system powers the boat which was the case during the Atlantic crossing.

Energy Observer's voyage took it past Cape Verde.
Energy Observer's voyage took it past Cape Verde. © Credit: Energy Observer Productions - George Conty

Steady journey

“It performed very well and helped the boat maintain a healthy average speed of six knots,” Vivies said. 

The six-member crew set off on 16 March and it took them just over a month to navigate the boat from Saint Malo to Martinique during which it covered a distance of about 9,000 km.

The first Atlantic crossing is an important milestone for the boat that is on a seven-year mission to circumnavigate the earth with zero carbon emissions.

Marin Jarry, the boat’s second-in-command said that without the hydrogen and the daily use of fuel cells, the Atlantic crossing passage would have been a lot longer.

“We’ve had no technical failures, despite what were extreme conditions at times. Energy Observer has certainly proven how reliable her energetic architecture is,” he said.

 

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