Clean Energy Catamaran Inspires Hope for a Cleaner Future

Funabashi Haruo gets a glimpse of the future onboard a catamaran demonstrating the usefulness of renewable energy sources and the need to combat marine plastic pollution.

I recently had the chance to see the “Race for Water” catamaran during a stopover in Japan on its round-the-world “Odyssey.” The vessel is powered entirely by clean energies—the sun, hydrogen and the wind—and produces zero CO2 emissions. 

The first thing you notice about the vessel are the solar panels that cover the hull like a carapace. Some of these panels can be rolled out like wings. The hull, which is about 30 meters long and more than 15 meters wide, is more than 25 meters wide when both wings are unfolded. Electricity created by the solar panels is stored in batteries to provide power for sailing and also used for the electrolysis of seawater to produce hydrogen that is converted into electricity through a pair of fuel cells.

The Race for Water catamaran in the Pacific Ocean off Tahiti COURTESY RACE FOR WATER FOUNDATION

The vessel’s main driving forces are solar and hydrogen energy, but it also utilizes wind power. A large paraglider-like sail rises 100 to 150 meters in the air and is used to pull the ship forward. At that altitude, strong, stable winds prevail, and when traveling in the tailwind direction, sail power alone can provide 5 to 8 knots of speed. The vessel is also fitted with a diesel engine in case of emergencies.

The vessel’s cockpit is packed with instruments and looks more like the central command center of a high-tech factory than the bridge of a catamaran. Steering and other operations are computer controlled and reference optimal solutions using AI. The living space, kitchen, bathroom, meeting room, bedrooms and so on are not spacious for five crew members—this is not a luxury cruise yacht—but they look clean and comfortable. 

The vessel was built about three years ago and has already traveled the equivalent of two laps of the earth. The plan was for it to call at various ports in Japan in 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics have been postponed until the summer of 2021, but the catamaran nevertheless stopped at a number of ports in Japan as planned.

The purpose of the Race for Water Odyssey is twofold. First, to communicate the viability of zero emissions and share this idea with many people around the world by showing how to live with 100% renewable energy. Second, and of equal importance, its purpose is to engage people with the increasingly serious problem of marine plastic pollution by gathering marine plastic waste at ports of call and discussing ways to address plastic waste disposal and its use, such as through technological development and public frameworks.

A Race for Water crew member gives a lecture on the catamaran deck to students in Tahiti, October 2018 COURTESY RACE FOR WATER FOUNDATION


On visiting this vessel and learning about its focused investment of resources, I got a strong sense that new roads forward might be opening up to deal with the increasingly serious challenges of global warming and marine pollution.

First, plainly, the Earth has a more or less inexhaustible supply of renewable energy, mainly solar and wind power. There is no need to keep depending on fossil fuels forever. 

Second, the need for dependence on large-scale coal-fired power generation and nuclear power generation will decrease if more efficient ways to store electricity can be devised. If mixed energy sources can be used in a focused way like they are on the Race for Water catamaran, then there should be no long-term need for huge power plants, huge power grids, or huge power companies. A number of technical breakthroughs still need to be made, but in the case of energy storage, hopes have been raised in fields such as hydrogen, heat exchange and hydropower. 

Third, and this might be the most important thing, we see in initiatives such as Race for Water a strong will to solve society’s problems. The people driving this project have as their aim the resolution of two of humanity’s greatest challenges in one fell swoop: global warming and marine pollution. Such grand visions with specific scientific insight are very much what the world needs at this moment in time.

FUNABASHI Haruo is a historian and CEO of the Sirius Institute Inc.

Note: This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of the Japan Journal.


About the Race for Water Odyssey

In 2010, Swiss entrepreneur Marco Simeoni created the Lausanne-based Race for Water Foundation. In 2015 he launched a scientific and environmental expedition, the Race for Water Odyssey, and built the mixed solar-hydrogen-kite-powered catamaran “Race for Water” to make a global assessment of the plastic pollution of the oceans. Race for Water started to travel around the world on its five-year Odyssey from April 2017. During the tour, Race for Water implements a “learn, share and act” program entailing research of microplastics in the seas and related education for children and others onboard at ports of call. 

The catamaran is covered with a maximum 512 m2 carapace of solar panels. Solar energy is produced during the day when the boat is at sea, and is used both to power the boat and recharge the 8 tonnes of Lithium-ion batteries onboard. At night, the batteries alone are used to power the ship’s engine and equipment. When the boat is docked, surplus solar energy is used to produce hydrogen from desalinated seawater, and this is stored beneath the deck in twenty-five high-pressure tanks. The hydrogen supply enables an additional sailing range of up to six days at 5 knots. This power supply is further supplemented by a 40 m2 towing kite, which is flown from the deck. 



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