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Around the globe in the world’s first clean-energy ship


The Energy Observer, the world’s first floating laboratory to be powered by hydrogen and renewable energy, set off on its round-the-world voyage on 26 June 2017.
On 26 June 2017, Energy Observer, the first ocean-going ship to be powered by hydrogen and renewable energy sources, set sail from France on a round-the-world journey lasting six years. In partnership with UNESCO, the vessel criss-crosses the oceans, stopping at 101 ports in fifty countries, raising awareness − among the public and local authorities − of the value of clean energy and sustainable development. 

By Virginie Jourdan

The Energy Observer, being presented to the public before its launch at Saint-Malo (France), in April 2017. This innovative project is being carried out in partnership with UNESCO.

Sailing with no greenhouse gas or fine-particle emissions, using only renewable energy − this is the challenge taken up by the French-built Energy Observer, the first vessel to be self-sufficient in energy. It left the port of Saint-Malo (France) on 26 June 2017 on a round-the-world voyage lasting until 2022, without a single drop of fossil fuel on board.

This real-life experiment will test the efficacy of solar and wind energy, and the production of hydrogen from sea-water. But beyond this technical achievement, Victorien Erussard − an officer in the French merchant navy and one of the project’s initiators − and his crew want to meet the creators of innovative technological solutions to “show that there is a path to clean and sustainable energy”.

For Erussard and his team, the time has come for action, not words, if we are to tackle global warming and the demographic and environmental challenges of the twenty-first century. The way we travel, feed ourselves, build our houses, work and inform ourselves – these are the questions that need answers today. “Innovative solutions are being developed all over the world. This expedition is an opportunity to build a community that transcends borders by finding solutions and connecting them to each other,” adds Jérôme Delafosse, a professional diver and documentary filmmaker on nature and biodiversity, who is head of the expedition.

The world’s fastest yacht

The adventure began in 2013, when French navigator Frédéric Dahirel recovered one of the fastest yachts in the history of offshore racing. In 1984, it broke through the symbolic barrier of 500 miles in twenty-four hours. And in 1994, it enabled the famous New Zealand yachtsman, Sir Peter Blake, to set the round-the-world record, after having withdrawn from racing to devote himself to environmental exploration.

Dahirel’s dream was to build the first French vessel powered by wind-generated electricity. This was symbolic. In 2015, he was joined by his sailing partner, Erussard. Then, a meeting with the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and the Laboratory for Innovation in New Energy Technologies and Nanomaterials (CEA-Liten) gave the project a new direction. The challenge was to explore a new technology − the use of hydrogen as an energy source.

A floating laboratory

It took two years to get the yacht ready. Two electric motors replaced the mainsail and jib. Two wind turbines and solar panels were installed on its sides. In the middle, a twenty-metre-wide power kite can be deployed. Two hydrogen generators operate under the hull. Equipped with turbines, they use the hydraulic force generated by the yacht’s motion to produce electricity. This powers the yacht’s engine, on-board energy needs, and steering and telecommunications equipment. The laboratory causes sluggishness − the yacht travels at eight to ten knots instead of the thirty knots it attained when it was racing.

Hydrogen: energy of the future

The second innovation lies in the production of hydrogen without carbon dioxide emissions. Hydrogen is seen as a future solution for the storage of carbon-free wind and solar energy. This gas does not occur naturally in its pure state and so has to be produced. The Energy Observer researchers opted for an environmentally-friendly solution – sea-water. “Today, ninety-five per cent of the hydrogen used in the world is manufactured using fossil fuels, like natural gas, which is highly polluting. We want to demonstrate that ‘carbon-free’ hydrogen can be produced,” explains Nicolas Degorce, a naval engineer who helped design the yacht.

About thirty researchers at CEA-Liten worked for two years to create a hydrogen chain capable of resisting the extreme conditions encountered at sea. They were aided by engineers, transport specialists, naval architects and new technologies, as well as private enterprise. “About twenty prototypes have been developed. This is a wonderful opportunity to take them out of the laboratory and test them,” adds Degorce.

In the holds and on the bridge, 700 electronic sensors record the behaviour of the various pieces of the energy jigsaw puzzle in real time − wind, solar, hydro-electric and hydrogen. The researchers then use this data to try to optimize performance. Designed as a smart grid, this system of combined renewable energy could one day be used in homes, factories and on board cargo ships. It could also help prevent the energy exclusion of the 1.2 billion people in the world who still live without access to electricity.

The Energy Observer’s route from 2017 to 2023, after its departure from Saint‑Malo, France.

A media ship for the planet

It will take more than technological achievements to secure a better future, though. With the Energy Observer, mariners hope to help the public gain a better understanding of the immediate risks of climate change and the need to preserve biodiversity. “I have been witnessing the impact of human activity on the planet for twenty years,” says  Delafosse. “This expedition is an opportunity to show what is really happening and to bring together positive initiatives from around the world.” His ambition is to make the Energy Observer a veritable media for the planet. “We want to nurture people’s dreams and raise their awareness, to let them discover the world as they have never seen it.” During the voyage, a series of eight documentaries will be made for a French television  channel. Virtual reality and 3D content will also be created and shared on the internet and at various ports of call. The inner workings of the Energy Observer will be on view, as well as dives with sperm whales, to improve our understanding of the ways they communicate with one another. And one day perhaps we can share all of this information with schools around the world.

This odyssey promises to be very fruitful. In the course of its 101 ports of call in fifty  countries, the crew will pass through islands that are seeking to be self-sufficient in energy, like El Hierro in the Canary Islands (Spain); or model cities such as San Francisco, which has plans to become a zero-waste city. In partnership with UNESCO, twenty forays are planned in World Heritage sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves by 2022, such as the mud flats of the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands, and the Socotra archipelago in Yemen − home to around 700 species of plants and animals that are unique to this region. “We will be filming the sharks of Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica and the White Sea north of Russia − all these are little-known treasures that are nevertheless affected by human activity. This expedition is a marvellous opportunity to get to know our planet better,” enthuses Delafosse. “We want to share this knowledge through digital media and the meetings that we are organizing in major ports around the world.”


UNESCO and the Energy Observer project

Sustainable development goals for natural sciences

World Network of Biosphere Reserves

World Heritage sites

Virginie Jourdan

Virginie Jourdan is a freelance journalist, based in Rennes (France). After covering organic farming issues for many years for a specialist magazine, she now writes about the digital revolution and ecological change for regional and national magazines.