A research team from the Department of Industrial Electrical Power Conversion at the University of Malta has designed and built a solar catamaran. This shows the viability of renewable energy and water transport, Prof. Joseph Cilia from the Faculty of Engineering, says.
What fuelled the idea to research and build a solar catamaran?
The concept of using renewable energy and electric modes of transport on land has been progressing quite rapidly over the past decade. However the adoption of these technologies is taking place at a slower pace for marine applications.
We have been working in the field of renewable energy and battery storage for a number of years and we therefore wanted to explore the viability of these technologies to achieve carbon-neutral transport.
What were your main findings during your research?
Our research focuses on the exploitation of renewable energy and energy storage for small vessels which are used to perform short trips without the need of energy from the grid and the application of smart charging which allows intelligent exchange of energy with the grid when the vessels are berthed.
We have achieved results based on practical experiments gained through battery storage used in conjunction with photovoltaic systems and fuel cell technology. The use of different technologies used on board have proved to be adequate to allow the vessel to perform planned trips without any input energy from the grid.
What technologies does the solar catamaran showcase?
Water transport is very important for Malta
The catamaran showcases different technologies, including an electric motor, flexible photovoltaic panels, battery energy storage systems (lead-acid and lithium-phosphate) and a direct methanol fuel cell. An autopilot has also been integrated which allows the vessel to follow a pre-defined path and thus improve the overall efficiency.
Is water transport a viable transport option for Malta?
One can easily realise the importance of the sea for the Maltese economy, from fishing, ship repair and aquaculture to shipbuilding and tourism. We believe that water transport is very important for Malta such as water taxis operating in the Grand Harbour area, tourism activities and leisure trips. The use of water transport can also help to reduce issues related to road traffic by providing alternative routes.
What role would the solar catamaran play within the context of local transport?
The proposed study focuses on the use of renewable energy sources and electric transport, two of Malta’s main strategic priorities, especially in view of the EU 2020 targets. The solar catamaran will serve as a showcase for electric water transport in our harbours through the design and implementation of a cost-effective system.
The catamaran is operated by an electric motor, which has various environmental advantages when you compare it to an internal combustion engine. These advantages include minimising sea and air pollution, conserving marine eco-systems, and reducing noise pollution and unpleasant smells.
Such features would be ideal for the operation of vessels within our maritime port areas, resulting in better air quality and less noise emissions.
Who is involved in the project?
I led the research, involving two undergraduate students and one Master’s student. The technical support under the supervision of Mr Charles Azzopardi was provided by both the University and industry. The project has so far been sponsored by a number of entities and cost more than €70,000.
When do you aim to build the final prototype and aim for certification?
We are currently finalising the catamaran full-size prototype which shall be officially launched during the Valletta Boat Show between October 13-16. The vessel certification process is planned for next year if we have the funding.
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