The first-ever round-the-world voyage by a boat powered only by solar panels – which is travelling under a Swiss flag – is now underway.
The MS TÛRANOR PlanetSolar left the port of Monaco on Monday. The project is aimed at raising awareness of solar mobility and renewable energies.
Swiss project founder and crew member, Raphaël Domjan, told swissinfo.ch from onboard the catamaran that the boat was making excellent progress.
“On the whole, after six years of work, it is hard to find words to explain the feeling of finally sailing. Let me point out it feels great to be sailing at night with the energy of the sun,” he said in email comments.
The boat is driven by a silent, pollution-free electrical engine, using only the sun’s energy.
“The idea is to prove that technology in the fields of renewable energy is advanced and reliable. The reason why we are on our way is to demonstrate that motorised shipping can work without fuel,” Domjan said.
The 50,000km-expedition is expected to last at least eight months, and will take in the east and west coasts of North America, as well as Cancun, Sydney, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
The crew will constantly have to optimise their route and speed in line with the available sunshine and the medium-range forecast. They hope to maintain an average speed of 7.5 knots.
The world’s largest vessel of its kind cost around €12.5 million (SFr16.6 million) to build. It is double-hulled, 31 metres long, 15 metres wide and weighs 85 tonnes.
On top are around 540m² of photovoltaic solar panels, connected to two motors in each hull. Special batteries mean the catamaran can travel for around three days, even if there is no fresh solar power.
The project has the support of the Swiss foreign ministry, which is donating SFr300,000 ($305,000) over 2009-2011.
The ministry said in a statement that it had been mandated to promote Switzerland’s competitive and innovative edge, especially in environmental technologies and renewable energies, to help position it as a country of reference in these fields.
“As a spectacular and truly global project, PlanetSolar is an excellent platform to promote this message because of its high visibility and the large media interest it generates,” the ministry told swissinfo.ch.
The boat can also benefit from logistic and organisational support of Swiss diplomatic representations in the stopover cities. This should allow the representations to, “foster and enlarge the Swiss network on a high level”.
Lord of the Rings
The project was started in 2004 near Lake Neuchâtel in western Switzerland and has involved an international team of physicists, engineers, and boatbuilders.
The name TÛRANOR is derived from the Lord of the Rings Saga and translates into "The Power of the Sun".
PlanetSolar is not Switzerland’s only achievement in pioneering sun-powered travel. It also boasts Bertrand Piccard’s solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse, which aims to travel round the world in 2013.
Last week, it made its first flight across the country, taking in Geneva and Zurich airports. In July it flew through the night on solar power alone, making aviation history.
A Swiss inventor has also circumnavigated the globe in a solar taxi.
“Interest and spirit”
David Stickelberger, managing director of Swissolar, the solar power professionals association, said these developments brought solar energy to the people.
“It shows that there is a lot of interest and spirit in Switzerland of people who believe in solar energy and that we can do much more than so far,” he told swissinfo.ch.
There is a lot of good research and industry expertise in solar energy, which is the basis for these achievements. But the country is not at the forefront when it comes to domestic take-up of energy from the sun, for example for use in heating, Stickelberger explained.
The Swiss lag far behind their neighbours the Germans in per capita use of photovoltaics and are behind the Austrians in terms of per capita solar thermal use, he said.
Stickelberger says this comes from a lack of political will and the fact that conventional energy is still cheap in Switzerland.
Solar power currently represents 0.13 per cent of Switzerland’s energy production. Stickelberger is convinced it could be more.
“We could produce around one-third of our electricity needs with today’s technology on our buildings. If you look at the future with more efficient photovoltaic cells, it could be even more.”
About the boat
Captain: Patrick Marchesseau (French)
First Mate: Mikaela von Koskull (Finnish)
Bosun: Jens Langwasser (German)
Energy Management: Christian Ochsenbein (Swiss)
Electrician: Daniel Stahl (German)
Project Founder & Initiator: Raphaël Domjan (Swiss)
German entrepreneur Immo Ströher is the owner of the PlanetSolar, which was built in Kiel, Germany in 14 months. It was designed by Craig Loomes from New Zealand.
The PlanetSolar is driven by two contra-rotating carbon propellers, whose diameter is almost two metres, twice the usual size for a vessel of this size, which makes propulsion more efficient.
As half the propeller is in the air and the other half underwater, a wheel effect is created, making it possible to steer the ship without a rudder.
Four electric motors, two per drive shaft, have a maximum output of 120kW and energy efficiency of over 90%.
The main challenge in solar shipping is bridging the time without sun by means of storage capacity and efficient propulsion. This is met by new technologies, including special batteries.