A sleek, 102-foot catamaran covered with silver solar panels that make it look like a Star Trek set captured the world’s imagination as it circumnavigated the globe powered only by the sun.
The 584-day, 37,000-mile journey ended a year ago in Monaco with mission accomplished: To demonstrate the efficiency and reliability of solar power and the importance of renewable and clean energy sources.
Now owners Raphael Domjan, a Swiss eco-adventurer, and Immo Stroher, a German businessman and solar-technologies advocate, have launched the $19 million MS Turanor Planet on a new voyage: A scientific expedition headed by a climate change expert with a Nobel Peace Prize to his credit.
“It’s a good second life for the boat,” said the captain, Gerard d’Aboville, who, as the first person to cross two oceans solo in a rowboat, knows something about alternative energy.
The three-month expedition, with stops in New York, Boston, Newfoundland and Iceland, began last week in Miami Beach and will end in Bergen, Norway. It will mostly follow the Gulf Stream, one of the most important regulators of European and North American climates.
Climatologists, physicists and biologists are using advanced instruments to collect continuous measurements of the surface air and the water to a depth of about 15 feet. The data will help them understand the complex relationship of ocean, atmosphere and climate.
“We are looking at the whole sequence, from the warmest parts here in Florida through to the coldest parts up north of Iceland,” said Nobel laureate Martin Beniston, director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “We’re looking simultaneously at physics, chemistry and biology, while most targeted scientific expeditions look at one specific set of mechanisms in one part of the ocean only.”
With “zero emissions, no diesel fumes,” the solar-powered catamaran is ideal for this type of research, Beniston said.
“Some of the chemical species that come out of a ship’s chimney are close to what the ocean releases. So you don’t know what proportions are coming from the chimney and what proportions are coming from the ocean.”
The ocean releases large quantities of aerosols (tiny liquid or solid particles) that can be either chemical, like salt, or biological like phytoplankton, which contain chlorophyll and need sunlight to live. One cutting-edge instrument aboard, the Biobox, can instantly determine the aerosol’s makeup.
“The Biobox sucks the air in a little bit like a vacuum cleaner,” Beniston said. “The laser counts one by one the aerosols that come through according to the light that is emitted when the laser burns the aerosol. Then we know the composition biologically and chemically.”
That knowledge is important because the interaction of phytoplankton with the ocean and atmosphere acts as a “huge carbon pump.”
The “exciting part” of the voyage, Beniston said, won’t begin until the MS Turanor PlanetSolar reaches northern waters with their frequent eddies, which break off from the main current and bring energy and nutrients to parts of the ocean that don’t regularly get them.
“We know broadly how the Gulf Stream functions,” Beniston said. “But some of the smaller-scale features, the eddies, are still fairly mysterious.”