A sleek racing boat, carpeted by solar panels, prominent for its two tall, rectangular sails, will be docked beneath Tower Bridge all this week. Christened Energy Observer, the ship sailed into town last week, marking the end of its north European tour. Since leaving Saint-Malo in 2017, the team has travelled 18,000 nautical miles, visited 25 countries and made 47 stopovers, including a particularly challenging mission to Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago – all without producing any greenhouse gas emissions or particulate pollution.
This tour marks just one part of a wider world mission, due to take place over six years with 50 countries visited and 101 stopovers made. But this expedition isn’t just an exercise in perseverance. The Energy Observer team is on a mission to test a variety of renewable technologies across difficult conditions, while carrying and spreading a political message – that a cleaner maritime world, utilising hydrogen as a primary fuel source, is entirely possible.
Speaking at a press conference to mark the beginning of the London stopover, ex-merchant navy officer Victorien Erussard, now president, founder and captain of Energy Observer explained his motivations for launching the project: ‘I have travelled 10,000 miles at sea and have suffered and witnessed the significant pollution of maritime transport and the degradation of the marine ecosystem,’ he said. ‘I decided that I had to find a solution. I imagined a clean and intelligent ship capable of optimising the energy mix available to us. A ship with the same comfort as a hotel boat, with the freedom of sailing equipped with an innovative energy system.’
Erussard, and film-maker Jérôme Delafosse, were joined at the conference by the on-board crew of 12 sailors, engineers and creatives. Having now spent many months at sea, the team look completely at home on the boat, jumping naturally across its solar-panelled flooring and posing on the roof. Inside the boat, conditions are certainly cosy. Snug bunks and a fully operational kitchen (complete with Smeg accessories) mirror the sleek exterior.
The most exciting thing about the vessel however is hidden from view. In order to power each voyage, the crew makes use of a range of renewable energy technologies, battery storage and hydrogen, with the latter stored in tanks beneath the surface. This makes it very different from the vast majority of ocean-going ships, which still rely on heavy and toxic bunker fuel – so toxic that the industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, producing nearly one billion tons of CO2 emissions every year, approximately two to three per cent of total man-made emissions. It has been estimated that the emissions from just 15 cargo ships equal that produced from all the cars in the world.
The timing of this mission is therefore prescient. In April 2018, the International Maritime Organization put in place a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by 50 per cent by 2050, and it is likely that some of the technologies being trialled on-board Energy Observer will prove essential if this goal is to be reached. Many experts agree that in the long-term, exploiting hydrogen will make the difference.
Energy Observer is currently unique because it is capable of producing hydrogen fuel on-board from seawater electrolysis – in which water molecules are separated into hydrogen and oxygen. This process is powered using renewable solar and wind energy. The latter is crucial because, while hydrogen is an efficient energy carrier and can be cleanly converted into electricity, its production is rarely so clean. ‘Hydrogen is inexhaustible, it is the most abundant element in the universe,’ said Erussard. ‘But it is not found in its natural state on land. We need energy to produce it.’ In fact, 95 per cent of hydrogen is separated from other elements using the power of fossil fuels, though Erussard adds that the ‘recent competitiveness of renewable energies and technological progresses, including electrolysis, could allow massive production of green hydrogen in the coming years.’
On-board Energy Observer, production is largely powered by the 141 square metres of photovoltaic solar panels that cover the surface. These panels are vital because they charge the boat’s set of Li-ion batteries during stopovers, which in turn power the electric motor. Once the batteries are full, the excess energy is used to produce hydrogen which is then stored in tanks for later use. Generally, the batteries provide short-term immediate power, with the hydrogen used later when conditions deteriorate. During the north Europe tour, a typical voyage saw hydrogen supply up to 60 per cent of the ship’s energy with the remaining 40 per cent attributed to solar power using a fuel cell.
A more recent addition to the boat has seen two wind-capturing devices attached. Though abundant, wind is tricky to harness for larger ships and over the course of the expedition the team tested a number of technologies, with several proving unsatisfactory. The new sails, called Oceanwings, are more useful. The sails act as a rigging system, allowing the crew to control speed and relieve the electric motors (tests have indicated that 18 to 42 per cent less energy is required with the sails in use). They also increase energy production during navigation through the production of hydroelectric power and, most importantly of all, they can produce hydrogen during navigation. While the crew was previously limited to producing hydrogen on stopovers, the sails mean it can do so while on the move – a world first.
The key question now is whether Energy Observer can really become the ship of tomorrow. The crew believe that its technology is ready to be scaled-up and is currently working on a number of shuttle boats and other service boat projects. But there are undoubtedly several obstacles that stand in the way of much larger cargo ships cleaning up their act.
A key barrier to expanding hydrogen-use is currently the cost of production. It is not feasible for most larger boats to produce hydrogen on-board and so land-based facilities will need to be significantly scaled-up. Until this is done on a wide scale, hydrogen will remain expensive and large companies will have little incentive to move away from traditional, cheap and dirty fuels.
‘What we need today is to coincide political will with favourable legislation and financial investments, in order to allow the deployment of green and economic hydrogen in our maritime world,’ said Erussard. ‘To get there, it is necessary to adopt regulations that will make maritime hydrogen an obvious option for many applications.’
Another challenge of utilising hydrogen comes from storing it. Though hydrogen has a very high energy content – up to three times more energy than diesel and 2.5 times more than natural gas – it is extremely light and therefore has to be stored at high pressure to stop it taking up too much room. Energy Observer has been trialling different storage methods to overcome this issue and currently has eight tanks on-board with a capacity of 332 litres, capable of storing 62kg of hydrogen.
Despite these challenges, hydrogen still looks likely to be a key player in the future. During the last Energy Observer voyage the team found that for equal weight, hydrogen storage contained 7.35 times more power than the batteries. But, utilising the gas efficiently will require more research. Speaking at the press conference, the IMO’s secretary general, Kitack Lim, highlighted this fact: ‘One of the fundamental IMO targets is that by 2050 we reduce at least 50 per cent of GHG emissions from international shipping,’ he said. ‘If you consider the increase of the global shipping fleet around 2050, in terms of the individual ship, that target means at least 80 to 85 per cent reduction per ship. This is a very high ambition.
‘One of the key sources is hydrogen. In this sense I’m very pleased to see the development effort by the Energy Observer project. There should be more research work and effort to apply this to the bigger ships so we can eventually achieve our target by 2050.’
Energy Observer will be docked near Tower Bridge until Friday 5 October with an accompanying exhibition open to the public situated nearby at the Energy Observer village, located at Marble Quay, Mews Street, St Katharine’s & Wapping, London, E1W 1LP.
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