World's Largest Solar Powered Boat

In yet another attempt to harness solar power for sea travel, Swiss engineer Raphael Domjan has designed the world's largest solar powered boat.

Named Turanor which translates into “power of the sun'', this vessel is 102-foot-long, covered in 5,700 square feet of photovoltaic panels of thin glass that charge a gigantic lithium ion battery (touted to be the world's largest lithium ion battery). The vessel can last on battery for three to four days if there's no sun. The catamaran constructed of light but strong carbon fibers has sharp-nosed “wave-piercing'' hulls designed to both reduce ocean drag and electrical drain on twin motors.


The $20 million vessel docked in Miami currently, arriving from Monaco where it began a journey to circumnavigate the world two months ago.

This boat is not the first solar powered vessel to visit South Florida though. In 2007 a 46-foot catamaran Sun21, arrived in Miami from southern Spain, completing the first Atlantic crossing by a solar-powered boat.

“We want to show what we can do with solar power,'' said Domjan during a satellite phone interview last week as the world's largest solar-powered boat cruised north of Haiti bound for a four-day stop at Miami Beach Marina, one of only two planned in the United States. “We have the technology to change the world, not tomorrow, but today'' he said.

Nearly two months into an Atlantic Ocean crossing, Domjan said the sailing was mostly smooth for him and a five-member crew. Of course, in a solar-powered craft, charting a course isn't as simple as plotting straight lines in the global positioning system. Instead, they study daily weather reports to steer toward bright sun and favourable winds.

”What we are doing now, nobody does this sort of navigation,'' he said. “We have to find the sun to go as fast as possible.'' For the Turanor, wind can be a boon as well as bane. With favourable conditions, the boat was breezing along at a 6.5 knot clip toward the Turks and Caicos Islands at midweek but at other points, the crew has had to fight the wind. Just off Monaco, the boat encountered squalls with 40-knot headways.

The crew can extend more panels like wings, increasing the boat's length to 115 feet and its beam, the nautical term for width, from 50 to 75 feet. Its electric motors can pump out perhaps 130 horsepower at full power, Domjan said, but that would drain the batteries within 10 hours. Typically, the boat pulls along powered by about 30 horses going to the twin props. The typical 14-foot whaler in South Florida boasts an outboard with more giddy-up.

Domjan, whose eclectic background includes stints as a mountain guide and ambulance driver, first came up with the idea for the undertaking in 2003 after his company installed solar panels to run its computers. A friend introduced him to Immo Stroher, a German investor with interests in several renewable energy companies.

Stroher admitted it didn't take him long to get involved and invest in the idea of this vessel and he ended up spending about 15 million euros, roughly $20 million.

An underpowered vessel can prove disastrous in rough weather but Domjan said the boat proved solid and ‘really safe’.

''What you put on a boat, you can put on a car, you can put on a roof top, you can put in the desert and produce energy that in the end will be cheaper than any kind of other energy,'' he said. Perhaps eventually it will but as of now, nascent renewable sources typically run costs far more expensive than fossil fuel and nuclear -- though, as Stroher point outs, those calculations don't take into account costs of dealing with pollution and radioactive waste.

Discussing the practical implementation of this in large vessels revealed, that though the Turanor's design is extreme, much of the technology has practical real-world applications for marine and other industries, he said.

While it would require far too many panels to propel huge, heavy tankers but solar arrays might provide all the power a ship needs while at anchor, Stroher elaborated, eliminating the need for running diesel engines that pump out foul fumes.

Many small boats already use solar panels or wind vanes to charge batteries but rapidly improving technology that can put solar cells in flexible plastic promises expanded benefits, he said. For example in Australia, one company is even trying to tap two renewable sources at once by covering a hard sail with solar cells.

Still, for all its high-tech, the Turanor still has some serious limitations as an ocean-going vessel -- most notably in the speed department. In comparison, the typical sailboat puts that other renewable energy, wind, to far more efficient and less expensive use, easily matching the Turanor in speed. Some designs can routinely top the 20 mph mark and even hit 40 mph or more -- at least for short periods.

“Some people say, ‘You have built the most unnecessary vessel in the world because it is running without an engine’- but that's what people have done with sails for 3,000 years,'' he said, laughing. “They are right, of course. It's not my main purpose to have boats or ships run on solar but to show what renewable resources are able to achieve.''

Stroher doesn't expect immediate profit from the PlanetSolar project, which has since added additional sponsors, but he hopes a voyage promoting the possibilities of solar will pay off in the long term -- for his companies and a planet with what he views as a damaging fossil-fuel addiction.


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