The hydrogen-powered engine has been celebrated since the 1990s as THE disruptive technology by leading representatives from the automotive industry - although it has never really been socially acceptable to broach the subject in polite circles. Back in 2004, Dr. Udo Winter, former chief developer of the fuel cell at Opel, once spoke in an interview about having developed a well-engineered vehicle and told of the plans to launch it onto the market shortly afterwards. It never happened.
The advantages it has over battery-based electric mobility are obvious: a longer range, little or no need for rare earth elements to manufacture the batteries, no emissions, infinitely available energy sources, and much more besides - the list is long. However, hydrogen has never quite been able to overcome the skepticism of consumers and politicians. They say that the investment costs in a comprehensive tank system are too high, the technology is too dangerous, and the efficiency level is too low. Interestingly, these aspects apply equally to battery-powered vehicles.
In order to banish the notion of hydrogen being a flop, which has persisted ever since, a team of French engineers got together to design the Energy Observer. The aim was to build a vessel capable of sailing completely independently and emission-free. The project was funded by the European Union, the French Ministry for the Environment, and numerous private companies, including the car manufacturer Toyota. With such capital and expertise behind it, the Energy Observer was put to sea after a relatively short construction period in 2017. The finished vessel is an impressive piece of engineering based on a former racing catamaran. The 30-meter-long and 12.8-meter-wide boat carries a complete system for independently producing energy that weighs 2.1 metric tons alone.
The self-sufficient production of hydrogen for motion requires a number of different systems. Power for the electrolysis must firstly be generated in order to obtain the desired hydrogen from the water. The necessary energy is supplied by a mix of 130 square meters of photovoltaic panels and two wind turbines. In strong winds, a traction kite can be used to provide additional propulsion.
In an initial stage, seawater is sucked in and undesirable particles are removed by a reverse osmosis system. The clean water is then broken down into its constituent components of hydrogen and oxygen by means of electrolysis. The amount required to power the vessel is then supplied directly to a fuel cell, which holds enough juice for two 41,000-watt electric motors. Surplus fuel can be stored in high-pressure tanks with the aid of a compressor, or - if present in electrical form - in 400 V batteries.
The aim of this colossal construction project was to create a mobile laboratory with which to test emission-free energy production. Wherever possible, the use of existing systems is tested in block units - similar to the combined heat and power plants already in use - to develop modular systems that can be used in other kinds of operations.
The Energy Observer has embarked on no small mission. In the space of six years, it is set to make more than 100 stops at the most important seaports of 50 different countries. The crew has sailed 17,973 nautical miles to date and already docked in 25 countries.
The space needed for the photovoltaic modules alone rules out the potential use of a similar system for commercial purposes. Yet that is not at all the declared aim of the Energy Observer. It is primarily about exploring the bounds of hydrogen technology in conjunction with partner systems and identifying weaknesses during long-term operation under extreme conditions. The systems used in the future will undoubtedly be more compact and mobile, making it possible to scale them up and down. And maybe Dr. Udo Winter's vision will one day become reality after all.