A front-on view of the Energy Observer vessel on water

Chasing new horizons

We head to France in an Audi A3 Sportback e-tron to visit a team of sailors who are about to set off
on the first ever round-the-world journey aboard a hydrogen-powered yacht

The Audi A3 e-tron parked at Saint Malo port in North-West France

The small port of Saint-Malo in north-west France can be reached by taking an overnight ferry across the channel from Portsmouth in England. Shortly after sunrise we disembark in our Audi A3 e-tron and drive to a shipyard near the city centre, where a small team are building a vessel called Energy Observer. When it is ready later this year, it will set off on a six-year journey to become the first boat to sail around the world fuelled by renewable hydrogen power.

A brass propellor that will push the vessel forward

Competitive yacht racer and Energy Observer project founder Victorien Erussard

‘We are setting ourselves a great challenge from a human and technological perspective,’ explains Victorien Erussard, the successful competitive yacht racer and merchant navy officer who originally dreamt up the project. ‘Hopefully it will open people’s eyes to the great potential that renewable hydrogen power can offer the world.’

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and contains three times more energy by unity of mass than diesel, yet its combustion doesn’t emit any CO2 or other fine particles. The advantages of such an energy source is something that Audi is currently studying, and it was central to the development of a hydrogen-powered concept vehicle, the Audi h-tron quattro, which was unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show in 2016.

A birds eye view pf the Energy Observer vessel on the water

A portrait photograph of an Energy Observer team member

One of the two electric motors to be installed in the Energy Observer

At the heart of the yacht sits two electric motors linked to two brass propellers that push the vessel forward. These are fed by lithium-ion batteries, in a similar vein to the battery that feeds the electric motor in the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron. But instead of being charged up by plugging into an electric charger or being topped up by a petrol engine, the boat harvests energy from two wind turbines, a spread of solar panels and a hydrogen fuel cell. In a similar way to the Audi h-tron quattro concept, this fuel cell draws on reservoirs of hydrogen and creates electricity while only emitting water vapour. But unlike the Audi, which fills up its tank at a pump, the boat will be able to produce its own hydrogen from seawater using excess electricity from the batteries.

‘With Energy Observer we hope to inspire a future generation of adventurers and show people that there are still many new ways of enjoying our planet, without destroying it,’ says Victorien. ‘We aren’t trying to break any speed records or anything like that. Our aim is to take time to explore the world, testing out new technologies and meeting new people.’

Written by John Silcox. Photographs by Greg White.


Find out more about the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron