Space & Innovation

Wind- and Sun-Powered Catamaran Preps for Global Voyage

The Energy Observer will be powered by the Sun, the wind and self-generated hydrogen when it sets sail in February.

Dubbed the "Solar Impulse of the Seas," the first boat to be powered solely by renewable energies and hydrogen hopes to make its own historic trip around the world.

A water-borne answer to the Solar Impulse -- the plane that completed its round-the-globe trip using only solar energy in July -- the Energy Observer will be powered by the Sun, the wind and self-generated hydrogen when it sets sail in February as scheduled.

The multi-hulled catamaran is in a shipyard at Saint-Malo on France's west coast, awaiting the installation of solar panels, wind turbines and electrolysis equipment, which breaks down water to produce its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen.

RELATED: Cargo Ship Cruises Offer Anti-Luxury Option

"We are going to be the first boat with an autonomous means of producing hydrogen," says Frenchman Victorien Erussard, who is behind the project -- confidential until now -- with compatriot Jacques Delafosse, a documentary filmmaker and professional scuba diver.

The plan is for the boat's batteries, which will feed the electric motors, to be powered in good weather by solar and wind energy, explains the 37-year-old merchant navy officer with a smile.

"If there's no Sun or wind, or if it's night, stored hydrogen -- generated by electrolysis powered by the solar panels and two wind turbines -- will take over," he says.

WATCH VIDEO: Solar Impulse Plane Takes Flight

As a result, the vessel's trip will not use any carbon-emitting fossil fuels, as is the case for 96 percent of boats today.

The vessel itself has a storied past.

The catamaran won the Jules Verne trophy, for a team sailing non-stop round the world, in 1994. It was bought for 500,000 euros ($562,000) and extended by a whopping six meters, to 30.5 meters (100 feet), for the project.

One of the backers of the endeavor is well-known French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot.

"I support it because it's the first project of this kind to actually be undertaken, it's ambitious and looking toward the future," Hulot, a former special envoy on environmental protection to President Francois Hollande, told AFP.

RELATED: US Navy Game-Changer: Seawater Turned into Fuel

"It's very promising for marine transport," Hulot added. "The Energy Observer is going to demonstrate that you can have great autonomy (at sea) and you can store and find energy when there isn't any more wind or sun."

The Energy Observer was designed in partnership with a team of naval architects and the CEA-Liten research institute in the French city of Grenoble, which is dedicated to renewable energy technologies.

At a total cost of 4.2 million euros ($4.72 million), the green energy boat will be fitted with sensors to act as veritable moving laboratory for CEA-Liten, whose director Florence Lambert describes the project as a "great challenge" to take on.

"Energy Observer is emblematic of what will be the energy networks of tomorrow, with solutions that could even be used within five years," says Lambert.

RELATED: Navies Could 3D-Print Ships at Sea

"For example, the houses of tomorrow could incorporate a system of hydrogen storage, which is produced during the summer months and then used in the winter."

The head of the project at CEA-Liten, Didier Bouix, adds that hydrogen can store "20 times more energy" than conventional batteries.

Energy Observer's world tour is expected to take six years. After a careful crossing of the Mediterranean, the catamaran will venture out into the Atlantic and then Pacific oceans.

In all, 101 stopovers are planned from Cuba to New Caledonia to Goa on India's west coast.

There are still hurdles to overcome, not least in funding: the Energy Observer's trip is expected to cost a minimum of four million euros a year, notably to develop a traveling exhibition.

But the team says it is confident of getting the funds.

And once again it finds inspiration from its airplane mentor Solar Impulse -- which flew around the world on renewable energy and accomplished "what everyone said was impossible," said Delafosse.

The Land Art Generator Initiative is one of our favorite things. A bi-annual design competition, LAGI encourages the construction of public art installations that also feed clean energy into the local utility grid. Previous competitions have been held in Dubai, Copenhagen and New York City.

Inspired by the California drought crisis, this year's competition in Santa Monica asked designers to incorporate a new twist -- installations that also produce clean drinking water. When art meets science, interesting things always happen. Here we look at ten proposals from the 2016 LAGI competition. Winners will be announced in October -- check the LAGI website for details and updates.

All images: Land Art Generator Initiative

Designed as a kind of industrial offshore pool deck and recreation area, The Pipe uses solar panels above to power a seawater filtration system below, which then pipes fresh water to the city. Meanwhile, visitors can take a ferry out and soak in hot and cold saltwater baths within the structure itself.

Among this year's more playful submissions, the installation titled "Wake Up" repurposes retired swan boats and turns them into wave energy converters. The bobbing boats power hydraulic generators, which in turn charge up batteries on the Santa Monica Pier. From the official submission papers: "When waves hit the swans, they emit a celebratory honking sound as a spectacle for the public to enjoy." Can't argue with that.

"Cetacea" proposes a series of offshore arches inspired by the shape of the blue whale. On the water's surface, wave buoys harvest tidal power by moving magnets through an electromagnetic coil. Wind and solar energy collectors are built into the sides of the sculptures.

From the Netherlands, "Aurora" consists of pier extensions holding aloft a synthetic cloud structure that changes shape, size and color depending on ambient wind and temperature. A tidal turbine generates clean electricity while a solar distillation unit generates drinking water.

Five different technologies for energy production are incorporated into the offshore ecosystem called "Flowerpops," including various solar, wind and wave solutions -- plus a system of rainwater harvesters.

Proposed by a pair of Italian artists, "Light Drop" houses a desalination plant that converts seawater into drinking water. The desalination process is itself powered by solar panels and submerged tidal pumps. The water drop imagery is intended to focus attention on California's water crisis.

Inspired by pier pylons and the shape of incoming waves, "Horizon Lines" is a series of transparent solar panels set at a specific angle to the shoreline. Each panel is illuminated with an LED light strip that indicates how much energy is being produced at any given time.

The otherworldly jellyfish shapes of "Cnidaria Halitus" are actually quite functional. Each stalk serves as a Fresnel lens, tracking the path of the sun and concentrating light to heat up internal boilers. Evaporated seawater then condenses on the inside membrane, providing up to 600,000 liters of potable water each day for the city of Santa Monica.

"Big Beach Balloon" is just that -- a 23-meter diameter tethered helium balloon that provides rides above the pier for 20 to 30 passengers at a time. Thin solar panels on the surface of the balloon gather solar energy, which is transmitted down to the ground via the tether cable.

"Ring Garden," proposed by a Romanian design team, functions as its own independent ecosystem, featuring a desalination plant, a rotating aeroponics farm and an algae bioreactor. The installation is designed to harvest seawater, carbon dioxide and the sun's energy to create biomass and fresh water.