Almost a year ago, the Turanor PlanetSolar, a sleek catamaran that bears a resemblance to a giant water beetle, set off from Monaco on a voyage around the globe. Later this month it will arrive in Singapore, having amassed proof that it is possible to traverse the world’s oceans on solar power alone.
The PlanetSolar is a pioneering experiment. Rather than trying to reproduce the vessel for commercial use, said Raphael Domjan, a Swiss national who set up the project in 2004, the point of the project is to prove that solar technology can do far more than it currently does.
“We want to show to the world what can be done, that modern solar technology has huge economic potential,” Mr. Domjan said recently in a telephone interview. “The idea is to provide an impulse to the industry to consider alternatives, to think about innovative ways to reduce their energy needs.”
Solar panels are, of course, widely used on yachts and powerboats to power on-board appliances, for example. But the PlanetSolar goes much further: It is 100 percent solar-powered and is the first such vessel to attempt a circumnavigation of the globe.
Mr. Domjan — a former ambulance driver, mountain guide and rescue specialist — spent years raising funds before the PlanetSolar finally became a reality last year.
Designed in New Zealand, built in Germany and flying a Swiss flag, the spaceship-like craft is 31 meters, or 102 feet, long and cost $15 million to build. Its top is covered with solar panels — about 500 square meters, or more than 5,300 square feet, of them.
Lithium-ion batteries store energy collected by the panels, allowing the vessel to sail even when there is no sun. Software specifically designed for the craft allows the team to work out the most energy-efficient route and speed, factoring in sunlight, waves and wind.
“What they are doing is brilliant — it gets people to think,” said Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, one of the largest associations of its kind.
To be sure, for solar technology to have a major effect on marine emissions, it would need to be widely adopted by the tens of thousands of tankers, container ships and bulk carriers that ply the world’s oceans every day. These behemoths, however, are simply too large to be powered exclusively by solar power.
What is more, unlike the PlanetSolar on its current mission, they cannot simply stick to the sunnier parts of the world.
Still, the PlanetSolar’s voyage coincides with a major, and relatively recent, rethinking of the shipping industry about fuel efficiency and the environment.
Global shipping has expanded dramatically in recent decades. Ships now carry 90 percent of the world’s trade and account for about 3 percent of global carbon emissions — equivalent to those of a major national economy, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.
Moreover, the low-grade bunker fuel used on most sea journeys contains sulfur and other pollutants. So any efficiency improvements and moves toward cleaner fuel sources could have a significant bearing on global emissions. And they could be especially welcome in coastal Asian cities like Hong Kong where millions of people live close to some of the busiest ports in the world.
Tighter regulations have helped to kick the industry into action. But the main driver on the fuel front has probably been cost.
“The price of bunker fuel has tripled in the past three years,” said Luis Benito, a marine industry expert and South Korea country manager for Lloyd’s Register, which provides companies in the energy and transport sectors with advice on safety and performance. “For large container ships, fuel can make up more than 50 percent of operating costs, so the maritime industry has been looking very actively at ways to reduce consumption, especially since the global financial crisis.”
In fact, the industry is playing catch-up with the automotive and aircraft sectors, which have spent decades optimizing their efficiency.
“Car engines are far more advanced in terms of technology than ship engines,” said Robert Swan, a British polar explorer and environmental campaigner, who has been taking a solar panel-equipped yacht around the world and also testing biofuels in its engine. “They are well behind — but they are starting to get their act together.”
Much work is being done in improving the design of propellers and hulls and in research on alternative fuels like natural gas, biofuels and nuclear power. Waste-heat recovery systems (in which heat generated by the engines is channeled back into a vessel’s energy supply network, rather than being vented into the atmosphere) are becoming standard.
And some shipping companies, like Maersk Line, have embraced slower speeds as a way of reducing fuel bills and emissions.
“If we slow a ship’s speed by 20 percent, from, say, 23 knots to about 19 knots, you can save up to 40 percent of the fuel cost,” said Tim Smith, who heads Maersk Line’s North Asia operations.
True, customers may balk at longer delivery times. And retrofitting vessels with better technology is expensive. But ships that operate a range of such improvements can be 10 percent more fuel-efficient, Mr. Benito said — perhaps much more.
“People now are far more likely to look at anything — what will get economic payback over the life span of a ship, which can be 25 or 30 years,” Mr. Bowring of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association said. “The priorities have changed with the higher fuel price.”
The use of solar and wind power, through kites that could help propel ships on the open seas, is still the preserve of especially innovative shipbuilders and remains experimental at the moment, Mr. Benito said.
Mr. Domjan of PlanetSolar believes that even if big container ships never end up working entirely on solar power, the technology could be much more actively deployed as part of hybrid solutions, complementing conventional engines.
“The technology is improving very rapidly, and is getting much cheaper. Someone has to be the first to show it works — that’s what we are doing,” he said.
From Singapore, the PlanetSolar will continue its voyage, via Mumbai, Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and the Suez Canal, arriving back in Monaco next May. After that, Mr. Domjan is planning a party, a vacation — and fresh efforts to help promote solar technology.