The Energy Observer has made 70th stops in its journey across the globe. Photo: Energy Observer

The spec sheet for the research vessel-cum-futuristic symbol of hope, Energy Observer, sounds like a hippie pipe dream. It’s powered only by renewable sources – wind, solar, and the ocean itself.

Currently on the fourth of its seven-year odyssey around the world to inspire and educate, the ship arrived in sunny Singapore this month, the 70th stop in its journey across the globe.

The zero-emission laboratory vessel spent March 10 to 20 at ONE°15 Marina Sentosa Cove – where it could be seen, but not touched.

Energy Observer
Photo: Energy Observer

Inspiring change

Energy Observer is not just eco-friendly for the sake of it. It’s travelling the world to inspire change, says general manager Louis-Noel Vivies. “The boat’s visits have always been a precursor to smart decisions.”

He adds: “During each stopover, most of the decision-makers can see an actual, full smart-grid system in operation. Reliable, simple, efficient. And this changes, quite often, their views and opinions. It is much more efficient than a 3D project or a nice PowerPoint.”

Some projects, he says, have been sparked by the ship’s visits, including a multimodal hydrogen refuelling station in Antwerp, and a Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking in Stockholm (which has since ceased and continued under the banner of Clean Hydrogen JU).

“Since then, ambitious hydrogen and renewable projects and plans have been launched in these countries. We think we probably had a little role in these deployment strategies,” adds Vivies.

Energy Observer
Photo: Energy Observer

Hydrogen fuel

Energy-saving – nay, energy-producing – features of Energy Observer include a pair of autonomous, 12m-wide Oceanwing sails that fulfil dual roles. They increase the ship’s top-end speed, while relieving its all-electric motor, and also produce electricity for the ship via hydroelectric means.

Energy Observer glides along powered by the wind – and hydrogen, by electrolysing seawater.

There’s an on-board smart management system that balances the books vis-a-vis the various energy producing systems, providing the vessel with its self-sufficiency. One less thing for researchers on board to worry about as they plug away at making it even better.

“The fact that the engineers are constantly confined onboard – they cannot be going skiing at 5pm – gives them the chance and time to work day and night on the systems, to optimize every technological brick,” says Vivies.

Energy Observer
Photo: Energy Observer

“On the hydrogen systems, we now have a very high reliability, especially with the new Fuel Cell System that we have developed with Toyota. It is much more affordable too: lighter, simpler than the first custom-made fuel cell. We have made huge progress on the compression [of hydrogen], and on corrosion, which is a big issue in maritime applications.”

These technology improvements include the development of a cleaner ship together with LMG Marin, a subsidiary of Sembcorp Marine. 

It will be dubbed the Energy Observer 02. “The next cargo ships will be using liquid hydrogen, so it’ll be quite different from Energy Observer. But we will use the same modular fuel cells, same design for the wings and roughly the same piping and corrosion-free materials. There is a direct benefit from our experience and data collected on Energy Observer 1,” says Vivies.

Energy Observer
Photo: Energy Observer

A Green Singapore

Vivies thinks bringing green technology to Singapore, already a global maritime hub, will put it in good stead to reap the benefits of an eco-focused future. “If liquid hydrogen is available in Singapore, it will have a huge impact on the local shipping industry,” he says. 

“This will attract the cleanest, most advanced and efficient ships in the harbour for bunkering and maintenance. Singapore should benefit from these new energy deals and challenges. To develop its know-how, its technologies, its industries in a new era.”

Energy Observer
Photo: Energy Observer

At present, true autonomy, as per Energy Observer, is still a pipe dream for bigger ships. “We believe that we will see these sorts of autonomous systems on islands, isolated villages, even cities and probably lots of voyage sailing boats. But not on the commercial fleet in the next decade,” Vivies says.

But he’s optimistic, especially in light of international cooperation. “We have Japanese fuel cells, US software and high-pressure piping, German and Canadian tanks, Italian solar panels and motors, Swiss compressors, and French batteries. The energy transition requires the cooperation of all nations.”

He continues, “Maybe it [might] start as another arms race, but now it’s more like a cooperative challenge. Hydrogen can provide a sort of energy autonomy to most territories… and this is a huge game-changer for geopolitics.”

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