PlanetSolar Sails into Second Life as a Solar-Powered Research Vessel

PlanetSolar solar powered ship will research climate changePlanetSolar, the multiple record-setting electric catamaran powered exclusively by the sun, created a media sensation when it became the first 100 percent solar powered vessel to circumnavigate the globe in 2010. That certainly helped to raise the profile of its main investors, entrepreneur Immo Ströher of the German energy management firm Immo Solar, along with the Swiss watchmaker Candino Watch. However, this ship is no mere corporate vanity project.

Thanks to a key decision made early in the planning stages, PlanetSolar has been able to transition from a flashy showcase for solar power to play a unique role in climate research with high stakes partners in academia and government. Along the way, it provides a clear demonstration that entrepreneurs with similar projects in mind could do well by adopting a broad view of the value of renewable energy.

The birth of PlanetSolar

PlanetSolar’s full name is MS Tûranor PlanetSolar, with the “Tûranor” combining invented words from the J.R.R. Tolkien novels The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings to mean “power of the sun.”

Fittingly, a literary reference also inspired PlanetSolar’s inception. The kernel of the idea goes back to 2004, when Swiss electronics engineer and “fervent defender of clean energy” Raphaël Domjan approached Ströher with the idea of a Jules Verne-style technology adventure, substituting solar power and the sea for Verne’s tale of a long distance journey through the air by balloon in Around the World in 80 Days.

Verne wrote the novel in 1873, when balloon technology was becoming familiar but had limited real-world application. As with Verne, Domjan envisioned pushing a new technology beyond the known limits, however crazy the venture might seem.

There was one key departure, though. While Verne may have preferred a lighter, leaner vessel designed for a speedy journey, Domjan and Ströher settled on a larger, heavier design.

PlanetSolar chugs along at an average of 5.5 knots, with the top speed coming in at up to nine knots when the batteries are in use. By way of comparison, today’s cutting-edge competition sailing yachts can reach into the 40-knot range, to say nothing of motorized speed boats, which easily top 200 knots.

On the plus side, PlanetSolar easily laid claim to being the world’s largest all-solar vessel, and its roominess and durability would become critical factors in the transition from showcase to workhorse.

It’s also worth noting that even with its modest capabilities relative to other forms of energy, PlanetSolar is still setting world records for a solar-powered ship according to Guinness World Records, and it will probably maintain its status until some other solar ship-builder comes along.

A second life for the world’s largest solar vessel

With a multi-use platform established for PlanetSolar from the outset, the genesis of the PlanetSolar Deepwater 2013 scientific expedition easily fell into place.

Triple Pundit had the pleasure of boarding PlanetSolar this week while it was docked in New York City at a marina in lower Manhattan’s financial district, where we had the opportunity to speak with the head of the expedition, Professor Martin Beniston, the Swiss climatologist who is director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva.

Beniston explained that while PlanetSolar still has enormous value as a vehicle for raising public awareness about solar technology, it is also going to play an important role in collecting new information about climate change.

The Deepwater 2013 expedition will take PlanetSolar on a tour of the Gulf Stream, which is known to be one of the key regulators of global climate.

For the first time, PlanetSolar will provide scientists with an emission-free platform to collect data in real time over distance.

In particular, the interdisciplinary studies will focus on the collection of data about aerosols. The role of land-based emissions in climate change is well documented, but gathering data on water-based emissions is running far behind. The expectation is that the collection of uncontaminated data from Planetsolar will yield new information about the role of different water masses in the release of aerosols, especially because the process will be carried out continuously as PlanetSolar travels along its course.

Along with the physics of aerosol release, the scientists aboard PlanetSolar will also collect data about the role of phytoplankton and other biological activity in climate change.

Adapting to solar technology

It is a truth universally acknowledged that human beings are highly adaptable, and that truth is embodied quite neatly by the helmsman of PlanetSolar, Captain Gérard d’Aboville. Well-known for nautical exploits that include rowing across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, Captain d’Aboville belongs to a generation that did not come of age with smartphone in hand, let alone a laptop, mouse, or any of the other essentials of today’s mobile technology.

However, in an onboard conversation with CleanTechnica, Captain d’Aboville demonstrated a seamless capability to adapt to the challenges of helming 21st century solar technology. Perhaps that’s because seafaring lends itself to the kind of foresight, planning and on-the-fly decision making that solar technology demands.

Captain d’Aboville also noted how the ship’s performance has improved following upgrades after its maiden voyage. Specifically, PlanetSolar had its propulsion system reconfigured. The original system was based on speedier ferry-type catamarans with raised propellers. Since these boats are typically confined to harbors and other protected waters, the half-submerged propellers maintain a relatively stable position.

The situation is different in open seas, where wave action can significantly raise and lower the position of raised propellers in water, creating a loss of efficiency. Efficiency being a critical factor where solar power is involved, the new design consists of fully submerged propellers.

The improvement was significant enough to help PlanetSolar to break its own trans-Atlantic speed record last month, when it made the voyage from Europe to the U.S. in 22 days compared to last year’s mark of 26 days.

In terms of research missions, the new propulsion system will also enable PlanetSolar to gain a more efficient range into the northern reaches of the Atlantic, where the weather tends to be cloudier.

About that “mad vision…”

While on board PlanetSolar, Triple Pundit also had a chance to hear from Sergei Mahnovski, the new director of New York City’s PlaNYC long-term sustainability plan.

Mahnovski brought up an interesting point that overlaps with the Vernian inspiration of PlanetSolar, by citing the “mad vision” and “fierce vision” that lead to the construction of the Erie Canal in the 19th century, linking inland production centers to the global port hub of New York City.

At the time of its inception, the Erie Canal faced intense opposition and derision, yet it went on to become one of the engineering marvels of the world and the linchpin of American global trade in its heyday.

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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