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A mission of enlightenment

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A Swiss group is on its way to becoming the first to cross the Atlantic without using a drop of fuel, in a boat powered exclusively by solar energy.

A Swiss group is on its way to becoming the first to cross the Atlantic without using a drop of fuel, in a boat powered exclusively by solar energy.

The 46-foot sun21 catamaran is powered by two electric motors charged by solar panels attached to a canopy-like structure over the deck. The purpose of the passage, organizers say, is to raise awareness about environmentally friendly forms of energy.

“We want to demonstrate that climate protection calls for action,” says Dr. Martin Vosseler, a Swiss physician and environmentalist who is helping crew the boat.

In 1997 Vosseler started a non-profit called sun21 that promotes international energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. “We want to show that solar energy is a perfect energy source for boats,” says Vosseler, who is 58. “All the solutions for solar energy to work are ready; they just need to be implemented. Energy conversion means a huge potential for ecology and economy.”

The idea to cross the Atlantic in a solar-powered boat was hatched in 2004 by Mark Wüst, technical manager of MW-Line, a Swiss builder of solar-powered passenger vessels (www.mwline.ch ). Wüst gathered a number of partners, including Vosseler, and last year helped form transatlantic21, the association that funded the project.

Construction of sun21, an MW-Line Aquabus C60 design, began in January 2006 at the MW-Line shipyard in Yvonand, Switzerland, on the southwest shore of LakeNeuchâtel. The project, which took nine months to complete, involved installing 48 solar panels on the boat’s canopy top, covering about 210 square feet. The panels contain photovoltaic cells that convert light into electricity and, combined, can produce up to 10 kW of power. The canopy structure is divided into two equal halves, each powering one battery bank installed in each hull. The batteries have a capacity of 520 ampere hours and power the boat’s two 8 kW electric motors.

Vosseler says the photovoltaic cells produce electricity even on cloudy days. Half the energy produced will be stored in the batteries, which will allow sun21 to move at night. The cat is expected to cruise between 5.7 and 7 mph.

“It’s surprising how powerful these relatively small electric engines are because of the very high frequency,” Vosseler says. “Also impressive is how easily the boat can be steered. With the two motors it’s very suitable for subtle landing maneuvers.”

Vosseler and the transatlantic21 group launched sun21 Oct. 16 in Basel, Switzerland, and took her up the river Rhine to Rotterdam, Netherlands. There, the boat was loaded onto a freighter and transported across the Gulf of Biscaya to Cadiz in the south of Spain. The group relaunched sun21 and took her north up the Guadalquivir River, arriving in Seville, Spain, Nov. 21, where they hosted press events promoting the project and the use of alternative energy sources. In November, sun21 was nominated by Time magazine as a candidate for its “Best Invention of the Year 2006” in the transportation category.

“Sun21 represents the beginning of a peaceful revolution which aims to end two centuries of fossil fuel consumption, as well as the environmental damage and wars linked to these non-renewable forms of energy,” Spain’s World Wildlife Fund general secretary, Juan Carlos del Olmi, says in a release.

The five-person sun21 crew started the trans-Atlantic voyage Dec. 3. and hoped to reach Martinique in the Caribbean by early February. They plan to put in at the Bahamas and Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before wrapping up the expedition in New York City in May. (Track sun21’s progress at www.transatlantic21.org .) At each stop the group will promote the use of solar power for boats.

“There is a huge potential in [solar-powered] boats, maybe not so much in commercial boats like freighters and tankers, but much more for small to medium-size passenger ferries and other boats,” says Andreas Kindlimann, an MW-Line naval architect. “The clear interest would be in leisure cruising rather than in speed. There are also the environmentally conscious clients that prefer the tranquility of a quiet cruise.”

As sun21 makes its way across the Atlantic in the name of solar energy, another Swiss team is planning the first circumnavigation in a solar-powered boat. Planet Solar (www.planetsolar.org ) has designed a 98-foot wave- piercing trimaran — also to be built at the MW-Line shipyard — that it expects to launch in 2009. The team hopes to complete the voyage in 120 days.