Energy Observer, Toyota team for global catamaran ride, #181

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Dr. Katia Nicolet, a marine biologist, is part of two, five-person crews rotating on board the Energy Observer. The self-sufficient, 100-foot catamaran is the first round-the-world, hydrogen-powered sea vessel. It’s a working lab designed to showcase zero-emission technologies and demonstrate that clean energies can be accessible to everyone.

As part of its six-year odyssey, the Energy Observer arrived in early May on Pier 9 in San Francisco about two weeks after entering the United States in Long Beach, California.

Th Energy Observer is on a global voyage to promote alternative energy sources. All images © Bruce Aldrich/2021
The Energy Observer is on a global voyage to promote zero-emission technologies  All images © Bruce Aldrich/2021

Nicolet, who has been involved with the project for about a year, is our guest on this episode of The Weekly Driver Podcast.

After joining several other guests for Nicolet’s extensive tour of the vessel, co-hosts Bruce Aldrich and James Raia interviewed our host about a wide range of topics — sustainable energy to living on the ocean for extended durations.

Dr. Katia Nicolet, a marine biologist, is a crew member on the Energy Observer.
Dr. Katia Nicolet, a marine biologist, is a crew member on the Energy Observer.

“Everything is covered in solar panels and looks black,” said Nicolet at the beginning of our podcast recorded in a makeshift sit-in area on the pier and among storage containers. “The primary source of our electricity comes from the solar panels.

Energy Observer: Six-Year Worldwide Voyage

“The main goal here is to be fully autonomous in energy and to go around the world only using renewable energy and hydrogen and not a single emission of C02 or any other kind of greenhouse gasses.”

The Catamaran is a hybrid-propelled vessel. It also has two sails, described by Nicolet as “more like wings.”

The hydrogen fuel tanks on the Energy Observer.
The hydrogen fuel tanks on the Energy Observer.

“Let’s say if we have 10 or 15 knots of wind, we are able to sail with what we call ocean wings,” she explained.

Energy Observer began its voyage in Saint-Malo, France in 2017. It has navigated more than 30,000 nautical miles.

While two crews rotate about every six weeks, each five-person team includes a captain, engineer, a reporter, a scientist and boatswain, who Nicolet describes as “kind of the Swiss Army Knife of the ship.” All crews share duties, cooking to cleaning.

The Energy Observer is about 100 feet long and has two "wing sails."
The Energy Observer is about 100 feet long and has two “wing sails.”

Toyota is among the Energy Observer’s primary sponsors.

“Yes, Toyota is one of our sponsors and we really like them,” Nicolet said

Two years ago, engineers from the manufacturer and the Energy Observer collaborated to create the fuel cell the vessel is currently using. Toyota is using its fuel cell in the Mirai, the hydrogen car introduced in California in 2015.

The Energy Observer docked at Pier 9 in San Francisco.
The Energy Observer was docked at Pier 9 in San Francisco.

“They adapted those cars’ fuel cells to be more compact, to fit inside the boat and that’s the fuel cell we’ve been using for two years now,” Nicolet said. “It’s much more efficient than what we had created when the project began in France.

“People tend to think that hydrogen is very dangerous, but I have been sleeping two meters away from big hydrogen tanks and it’s really rough seas this boat has been experiencing. We have big swells and lightning storms and really rough conditions and we’ve never had any issues.”

The Energy Observer is now en route to Hawaii. It will then continue to Japan.

F0llow the global voyage of the Energy Observer on the website:

Please join us for our interview with Dr. Katia Nicolet as she details her life at sea with an engaging combination of science and a sense of humor.

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