A boat pulled into Boston's Rowes Wharf recently that's unlike any other vessel in the world. Its name is the Energy Observer, and it's been traveling the globe for seven years using only renewable power to spread the word of sustainability on the sea.

The vessel is a demonstration project backed by a French hydrogen energy company and supported by many other tech companies in the renewable energy field. It set sail in 2017 and has been at sea ever since.

Probably the most striking thing about the catamaran-hulled boat that stretches 100 feet from bow to stern is that it's coated in solar panels.

The vessel's crew, including onboard climate scientist Beatrice Cordiano, recently gave GBH News a tour.

“So, if you want to follow me, as you can see, one of the sources of energy that we use are the solar panels,” Cordiano said as she walked over some of the hundreds of panels covering the boat. “We have covered the entire boat with different technologies.”

Those solar panels charge up lithium batteries, which provide short-term storage for the power that drives the vessel's electric motors.

“And then we have — which is the masterpiece of this boat — hydrogen, which is the long-term storage,” she said. “So, we produce hydrogen on board.”

As Cordiano explained, they suck up sea water, run it through a system to desalinize it, and then use a device called an electrolyzer to separate water into its two parts: hydrogen and oxygen. That hydrogen is stored in tanks on both the port and starboard sides of the boat, and can be run through a fuel cell to be turned back into electricity when they need it.

Mélanie de Groot van Embden is the Energy Observer's onboard reporter, sharing the story of this carbon-free vessel.

“The maritime industry is very polluting for our oceans. And 90% of the goods we consume are being transported with cargo ships,” de Groot van Embden said. “And at the moment, they are still in majority using marine diesel oil, which accounts for 3% of our emissions in the world. So, we really want to raise awareness for that and show that there are solutions, that the technologies are mature, that they just need to be scaled up.”

Since its launch, the boat has traveled widely to spread that message.

“We went to Hawaii. We went to New Caledonia. We went to Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, South Africa, Brazil and now the United States,” de Groot van Embden said.

They even sailed in the Arctic, to show that its technologies could work in extreme temperatures. The boat has been well received in every port, de Groot van Embden said.

“The U.S. has always been the most enthusiastic about our technology, even though you're also the second-most emitter in the world,” she said. “So it's always a little contradictory.”

A boat with large vertical sails approaches Boston's shoreline.
The Energy Observer navigates Boston Harbor.
Mélanie de Groot van Embden Courtesy of Energy Observer Productions

The Energy Observer also uses wind power, but it doesn't use traditional sails. It was the first vessel to pioneer a technology called “ocean wings.”

Onboard engineer Luc Bourserie hit a switch and two wings raised up vertically from the boat like towers, 10 meters — or about 33 feet — high. They're fully automated to capture wind no matter what direction the boat is headed, he said. And they're easy to use.

“So, even if you have rough weather coming, you can put them down quite quickly and easy,” Bourserie said.

Because of their design, ocean wings are about twice as efficient as traditional sails, Bourserie said, and their rectangular profile doesn't cast much shadow on the solar panels beneath.

That forward motion under sail can also be turned back into electricity, similar to how a hybrid vehicle uses its momentum when breaking to recharge its batteries.

We can also use the speed of the boat that we have, thanks to the wind, to put our propellers in reverse mode and produce electricity from the speed, making the motors [act like] generators,” he said.

Bourserie sees some hope in the news last year that a cargo ship from Singapore was retrofitted with ocean wings, significantly cutting its fuel use. Some of the technologies on the Energy Observer aren't commercially viable yet, but the point of the vessel, Bourserie said, is to test them out.

“Let's not wait to be too late to develop these solutions,” he said.

The Energy Observer set sail again last week, and the crew plans to make it across the Atlantic to be back home in Paris in time for the Olympics there in July. It's an opportunity, for once, when the world comes to them.