March 1, 2011 - solar ships

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

For millennia, humans have used renewable energy to propel ships over the oceans.  The winds that have filled the sails of hundreds of generations' most technologically advanced vessels gained their power from the Sun's radiation shining on land and sea, creating temperature differentials that in turn caused the winds to blow.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the first sailboats may have been used by the Egyptians over 6,000 years ago.  Sail technology may have arisen in multiple separate regions of the world over time, but whoever was responsible for the first sailboats clearly started something big: harnessing renewable energy to move people and cargo over the water.

Photo: winter in Northeast Harbor, Mount Desert Island, Maine.
 Sailcraft still ply the world's waters of course, though the development of commercially-viable steam engines in the 18th century significantly changed the course of ship design and technology.  Naval engineers and marine architects continue to make advances in sailcraft design, using new materials and new design tools to create faster and more efficient vessels.  At the same time, a new kind of renewable propulsion system is arising: solar-powered ships.

As you read this, the 100-foot MS Turanor PlanetSolar has crossed the Atlantic, traversed the Panama Canal, and is well under way across the Pacific in its bid to be the first solar-powered vessel to circumnavigate the globe.  Constructed by Knierim Yacht Club, in Kiel, Germany, the PlanetSolar uses 537 m2 of solar PV panels to generate up to 93.5 kW of power - about 125 hp.  The solar PV panels have an efficiency of 18.8%, and are linked to six 388-volt lithium ion batteries with an aggregate storage capacity of 2910 amp-hours (Ah).  (Compare the current Toyota Prius hybrid drive battery, which has a nominal capacity of 6 Ah.)

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