World's Largest Solar-Powered Boat
Tom Lombardo posted on July 24, 2013 |

In 2012, the MS Tûranor became the first boat to travel around the world using only solar power. (Okay, on a technicality you could argue that Magellan did it with sails, and wind is ultimately caused by the sun, but let’s not split hairs over that; I’m talking about photovoltaics.) This distinctive-looking catamaran is the world’s largest solar-powered ship. Tolkien fans might recognize the name Tûranor - it’s the Elvish word for “Power of the Sun.”

The Swiss Army Knife of Ships

Originally built to be an ambassador of photovoltaic energy, it also serves additional purposes - scientific, environmental, and educational - as it journeys around the globe. As a scientific vessel, the MS Tûranor is studying the gulf stream. Because it’s a zero-emission ship, it allows instruments to collect data that’s untainted by pollutants from the ship’s engines. This provides scientists with accurate information about the chemical makeup of water in the gulf stream.

Working with the Waste Free Oceans Foundation, the MS Tûranor will begin collecting trash that litters the ocean’s surface, using a giant trawling net capable of scooping up to 8 tons of marine pollution.

As it travels around the world, the MS Tûranor stops at various ports, offering educational opportunities for local populations. The ship hosts a variety of educational activities that teach kids about pollution, marine life, energy, and photovoltaics.

The Numbers

The Tûranor is propelled by a pair of 60 kW electric motors (one per hull), each of which spins a five-blade propellor at up to 600 RPM. This produces a maximum speed of 14 knots (26 km/hr, 16 mph) and an average speed of 5 knots. On average, the motors consume a combined 17 kW of power and the rest of the boat uses about 3 kW, giving a total consumption of 20 kW.

The electricity is provided by almost 30,000 solar cells covering an area of 512 square meters. These generate up to 93 kW of power. So the ship can run at night and under cloudy conditions, a bank of lithium-ion batteries, weighing in at 8.5 tons, stores the excess energy that the panels generate. PlanetSolar claims unlimited autonomy. Considering the fact that it spent 584 days on the ocean without consuming a drop of fuel, I’d say that’s a reasonable claim. In fairness, I should point out that they don’t always take the direct route - they try to avoid clouds when possible, so the batteries are only used at night. Maybe they should add some wind power to complement the PV panels.

The Mechanics

The Tûranor’s is composed primarily of carbon fiber and epoxy resin, providing a sleek, lightweight profile that minimizes drag. It’s capable of carrying up to 60 passengers and operates with a crew of only four people. Photovoltaic panels cover nearly the entire deck, with additional panels mounted on rails that hydraulically extend past the sides of the ship when it’s at sea. These additional panels are retracted when the Tûranor comes into port. The rear flap can be tilted to track the sun and maximize electrical output. As you can see, the panels are durable enough to be walked upon.

See It In Action

Here’s a video showing the Tûranor’s design, construction, and its historic world tour:

While the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered plane, was intended mainly as a demonstration of solar power and advanced materials, it's hardly a practical design for everyday air travel. The Tûranor, on the other hand, is a fully-functional ship that can be used in a number of marine-based applications. Of course, there's a downside: this one cost about $15M to build. Not knowing the going rate for yachts, I just did a quick search for something of comparable size and passenger capacity and found that they average about $5M. Then again, the Tûranor is a one-of-a-kind vessel, so much of its cost was design work and initial tooling. With mass production, the costs would decrease over time. Also, the principles can be applied to other ships. I think engineers can learn a lot from the Tûranor, and I expect its lessons to positively impact the future of ship building and clean energy production.

Images and Video: PlanetSolar

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