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Giant solar-powered yacht to circle globe

By George Webster for CNN
  • World's largest solar-powered boat is preparing to navigate the globe
  • 30 meters long, "Turanor" has enough solar panels to cover two tennis courts
  • Voyage of 50,000 km, projected to take 160 days -- through Pacific Ocean, Suez Canal
  • Skipper Raphael Domjan: "We have the technology right now to change how we do things"

London, England (CNN) -- Intensive trials are under way as the world's largest solar-powered yacht prepares to circumnavigate the globe.

As heavy as a whale and 30 meters long, the vessel is adorned with 536 square-meters of photovoltaic panels -- enough to cover over two tennis courts -- which its crew hope will enable it to complete the 50,000 kilometre journey fueled by nothing but energy from the sun.

"This is not just an adventure story," skipper Raphael Domjan told CNN. "We want to show the world that we have the technology right now to change how we do things."

Energy captured from the sun and stored in the world's largest lithium ion battery will power a noise-free, pollution-free electric motor during an estimated 160 day voyage.

The boat, christened "Turanor" after a word meaning "power of the sun" in JRR Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is Domjan's brainchild.

We want to show the world that we have the technology right now to change how we do things
--Raphael Domjan

The Swiss-born former-mountain guide will be joined at the helm of "Turanor" by Gerard d'Aboville, the first man to row across the Atlantic and the Pacific. They will be assisted by two engineers.

The $16 million vessel is a "catamaran," a type of craft with two hulls, which save energy by slicing rather than riding the waves. The boat will travel at at an average speed of 7.5 knots -- about the same as an oil-tanker.

"Turanor's" batteries can store enough energy to run for roughly 72 hours without any sunlight, said Domjan. But that is a scenario he is determined to avoid.

"By far our most serious challenge will be forward management of our energy supplies," Domjan told CNN. "If we use too much energy and the battery runs out, this could be very dangerous, as we'll have no power to steer ourselves out of trouble."

The crew will follow a meticulously planned east to west route across the equator to capture as much valuable sunshine as possible.

"We'll be in constant communication with meteorologists in France, who'll be giving us the most up-to-date information about where to find the sun," explains Domjan. This, he adds, may require them to take a much less direct route than they would otherwise choose.

Departing from the Mediterranean Sea, "Turanor" will travel across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal, before traversing the Pacific and Indian oceans and sailing down the Suez Canal.

Domjan was initially inspired by a trip to Iceland in 2004.

"I saw with my own eyes how quickly the glaciers were melting," he said.

"I thought that doing something like this would be a great way to demonstrate that today, technology is easily available to design a much more environmentally friendly means of transport."

After 14 months of construction in Kiel, northern Germany, the huge sun-powered yacht was this month lowered into the choppy waters of the Baltic Sea.

For the next year the "Turanor" will be subjected to rigorous tests assessing its ability to meet the immense seafaring demands that lie in wait.

Assuming everything goes to plan, Domjan says he hopes to set sail in the spring of 2011. Fingers crossed it's a sunny year.