Journal du Dimanche #1: Race for Water: a high-tech yacht on a mission to fight ocean pollution!

As promised, here is Christel de Taddeo and Eric Loizeau’s first article on the Race for Water Odyssey. You can follow Race for Water’s journey every Sunday in August, in Le Journal du Dimanche. This article, by Christel de Taddeo, originally appeared on August 6.


The environment:

The yacht Race for Water is a floating research lab, and a platform for educating the public about preserving the world’s oceans.
The expedition:
Race for Water is 100% energy-independent and powered exclusively by clean energy; it has just set sail on a mission to combat ocean pollution.

At 35 meters long, with 500 square meters of solar panels, the yacht Race for Water is the world’s largest solar-powered boat. Under its original name—the Planet Solar—the yacht completed the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the earth, between 2010 and 2012. It’s been transformed into a floating research lab for the open oceans,  now including hydrogen technology and a traction kite to increase its range of travel. Legendary sailor and mountaineer Eric Loizeau is an ambassador for the Race for Water Foundation, and recently joined the ship’s crew in Cuba, where they’ll set off on a new environmental expedition.

“We chose the name Race for Water because we’re racing against time for future generations,” says Foundation president Marco Simeoni. “If nothing changes, by 2050 there will be as much plastic as fish in the oceans.” The Foundation’s purpose is to preserve the earth’s oceans; they’re committed to scientific progress, but also to educating the general public and the world’s decision-makers, and ultimately, seeing real-world solutions put in place.

Pollution is all around us. “Even when we don’t realize it,” says Eric Loizeau. Loizeau previously joined the first Race for Water odyssey in 2015, on board a MOD70 trimaran. That expedition brought back some alarming data: cleaning up the oceans on a worldwide scale is no longer possible. In light of this, the Foundation decided to change course and launch a new, five-year program (2017-2021), in areas with a strong appeal for scientific research: the Caribbean and the Pacific; the Middle East and the Mediterranean; and the North Pacific and Asia. “Because these are oceans with very high pollution levels, or they’re cut off from other bodies of water, or they’re close to densely-populated areas such as India, China, Japan, and the US,” explains Eric Loizeau.

On board this one-of-a-kind catamaran, researchers will be able to conduct new studies on plastics pollution, looking at microplastics, the toxicology of marine plastic and its impact on different ecosystems. Race for Water is roving laboratory, but it’s also a teaching tool and a real-world example of the innovative solutions that aim to fight this type of pollution more effectively. The ship’s first stop was the Caribbean Sea.

This week, the Race for Water team collaborated with scientists from Cuba and Norway to collect sediment samples in Cuba’s Havana Bay. On Tuesday, the ship will set off to continue its work in the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe. Race for Water is an ambassador for environmental solutions and ocean preservation, but it’s also part of the transition to clean energy, packed with technological innovations that allow it to be 100% energy-independent with zero fossil fuel consumption.

On board, Race for Water has two 60 kW electric engines, powered exclusively by clean, renewable energy. Its photovoltaic panels turn sunlight into electricity, which is then stored in batteries housed in the boat’s hulls, enabling it to sail at night as well as during the day. “Although they’re very efficient—they’re the same batteries used in submarines—we still didn’t have enough storage capacity for the energy that the ship produces,” explains the project’s technical director, Jean-Marc Normant. To increase Race for Water’s range, the team worked with Swiss Hydrogen SA to develop and produce fuel cells powered by hydrogen that is produced through electrolysis.

The electrolysis system uses sea water that is desalinated and filtered on board the ship. An electrolyzer then breaks the water into oxygen and hydrogen, and the hydrogen is compressed and stored in 25 carbon tanks under 350 bar of pressure. Race for Water can store about 200 kg of hydrogen, which is then combined with ambient oxygen to generate electricity in the fuel cells. Jean-Marc Normant clarifies, “With 7,400 kg of batteries on board, we could store 750 kWh. The hydrogen battery weighs 6,500 kg, but it can store 2,800 kWh—almost four times our existing capacity!” By combining those two technologies, Race for Water has gone from storing enough power to sail at five knots for two days, to sailing at five knots for six days. “It’s no more hazardous than gas or any other traditional fuel, and it’s clean energy,” emphasizes Normant. “It’s the future of electricity storage!”

Race for Water also has a 40 square meter autopilot kite sail system that flies at an altitude of 100-150 meters, where the winds are stronger and more consistent. “It’s incredible to see such a small kite pulling this huge boat,” says Normant. Developed and sold by the German firm Skysails, the kite drive system is an innovative, high-performance device that can double Race for Water’s speed under optimal conditions. The 100-ton yacht can then travel at eight knots (14 .8 km/hr) using only wind power. A control box inside the yacht’s cockpit allows the crew to remotely control the kite, and it has its own autopilot system. “It’s a bit like hanging on to a paraglider by the seat of the pants,” jokes Normant. The kite has a gyroscope that determines its orientation, and an anemometer to measure wind speeds. “With all of that data, it can fly itself,” Normant assures us.

The autopilot plots a high-speed (100 km/hr) figure-eight path through the sky, to increase the kite’s traction strength. The system generates 10-25 times more energy per square meter than a traditional sail. “Under ideal conditions, it’s as if we had 1,000 square meters of sails up,” according to Normant. The kite also has a manual control mode, allowing it to be flown like a remote-controlled glider. “When we want to take the kite down, we put it into stable mode at a neutral angle, and then we retract it with a winch on the front of the boat,” says Normant. The system is still in development, and Normant reports that, “We’re testing an autonomous power system for the autopilot, using a small wind turbine to generate electricity. At the moment, the autopilot has a battery backup, but it could crash if the electricity went out. So we have to bring the kite down every six hours to change the battery.”

While the system still hasn’t caught on with shipping companies, that’s “because the price of the winch dropped, so installing it wasn’t as profitable for owners; if the price of the drum goes up, it will be profitable,” Normant assured us, and he also mentioned “some new outlooks coming on the scene, as well as new political strategies.” At the moment, financial considerations often trump environmental concerns, but Race for Water hopes to be a driver of change in terms of both science and behavior. All it takes is a little ocean water, wind, and sun.

Source: Le Journal du Dimanche