Skip to content

Catamarans go solar

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Despite their many drawbacks, fossil fuels maintain a toxic hold as the world’s primary energy source. To release ourselves, we need innovative approaches to sourcing and managing energy. At the University of Malta, researchers have designed a solar-powered catamaran that uses smart-charging and battery management to efficiently utilise renewable energy. The project aims to serve as inspiration to usher in a future of environmentally friendly vehicles. Words by Diane Cassar.

Our globalised economies demand distribution. Commodities and cargo can be flown and driven, but it is shipping that carries 90% of international trade. This worldwide transport network runs on fossil fuelsfrightening volumes of it. Effectively, fossil fuels make contemporary economic growth and development possible. But with fuel prices fluctuating viciously and environmental impacts sending shivers down spines, the issues cannot be ignored forever.

The transport sector accounts for nearly one-quarter of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. In turn, maritime transport is responsible for about 2.5% of global emissions and is expected to increase by 50% to 250% by 2050, a worrying thought when considering its dependence on oil and internal combustion engines. The problems associated with these are common knowledge but no less devastating to the marine environment. Unpleasant noises and smells have a negative impact on both wildlife and the experience of those on the boats, particularly in the tourism sector, and the high fuel consumption and operational cost can make journeys financially unfeasible.

To mitigate these major worldwide concerns, researchers are developing alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro energy. However, while the concept of using renewable energy and electric methods of propulsion on land has been progressing quite rapidly over the past decade, the adoption of these technologies for marine applications is proving much slower for various reasons. One particularly salient aspect of this task is energy storage: a valuable asset for vehicles travelling over long distances and far from established sources of fuel.

A team of engineers (from the Department for Industrial Electric Power Conversion, Faculty of Engineering, University of Malta) has been studying the exploitation of renewable energy and energy storage for small vessels on short trips. The result is a cutting-edge electric catamaran powered by battery energy storage in conjunction with photovoltaic (PV) panels and fuel cell technology.

Malta is bestowed with the EU’s highest intensity of solar radiation—perfect for photovoltaic panels.

This custom-made catamaran needs to be environmentally friendly and provide performance comparable to an equivalent fuel-powered vessel. The five metre prototype is capable of carrying seven passengers and has successfully tested through a number of sea trials. The final trials are planned for the coming months.

Malta is bestowed with the EU’s highest intensity of solar radiation—perfect for PV panels. The high amount of electricity that PV panels in Malta can generate makes solar ideal for the islands to achieve carbon-neutral transport. PV systems comprised of flexible panels have been integrated in the solar catamaran’s roof and are used to charge the on-board battery. Secondary power is provided by a fuel cell which runs on methanol. The electric motor that operates the catamaran has a number of environmental advantages when compared to an internal combustion engine. It is proven to leave a much smaller carbon footprint than a fossil fuel engine. It does not pollute the water either, since it doesn’t emit any exhaust gases nor release any oil or unburned fuel into the water that harms the sea. Moreover, electric motors do not produce any unpleasant smells during operation and are much quieter than comparable combustion engines. A solar-powered catamaran is ideal for port areas, leading to cleaner air and less noise pollution

Electric sea transport has several environmental benefits and lower running costs. Yet, its uptake is hindered by the scarcity of commercially available solutions. Existing options lack adaptability to meet the requirements of catamaran owners ,and they incur high investment and maintenance costs in order to ensure reliable performance and a reasonable battery lifetime. The solar catamaran wants to solve these problems and develop a cost-effective solution for the conversion of fuel to electric-powered vessels that can be replicated on a local level. An online battery management system is used to optimise the performance of the energy generation, storage, and propulsion system of the catamaran, ensuring reliability. This remote monitoring and control over the vessel’s batteries helps to keep their charge within a safe and useful window of operation and increase the batteries’ lifetime, thus reducing maintenance costs. The system also allows for the application of smart charging, through which the user can charge different onboard technologies before the vessel embarks on planned trips, and can also sell electricity to the grid while the vessel is berthed and not in use. This feature makes the boat more cost-effective.

Turning the solar catamaran into a viable product for the market can have a huge impact on Malta and beyond. It will help develop green transport, reduce the carbon footprint, and perhaps create a new market for Malta to offer worldwide.

The solar catamaran prototype can serve as a showcase and inspiration for electric-powered transport in our harbours, proving that it’s possible to design and execute a cost-effective system which is both environmentally friendly and reliable. The project can be replicated through the conversion from fuel engines to electric motors for small vessels operating in the Grand Harbour area, as well as for short trips to Blue Grotto and the island of Comino, and for round trips around Malta. This can be very beneficial for the tourism industry, making these trips more attractive by eliminating exhaust gases and significantly reducing noise. The serene atmosphere we would all love to have on our sea is not a reality yet. But it could be… 


More to Explore

Fostering Creativity and Community: The ART Connect Project at the University of Malta Library

The Library is, in many ways, the beating heart of the University of Malta (UM). The pulse of intellectual life can be felt most profoundly amongst the quiet shelves lined with books and the many students and academics lining the Library’s work desks with their noses deep in their projects. In this sense, the Library is also symbolic of the University’s overall health and vitality, so it is important to balance serious work with serious play.

The evolution of the ART Connect Project has been a journey of dedication and transformation. Inspired by the vision of new librarians and a desire to revamp the Library’s decor, what was once a seed of an idea has now matured into a vibrant platform for artistic expression, collaboration, and community building.

The ART Connect Project aims to connect people through creativity, foster collaboration, and transform spaces, inviting artists and art enthusiasts to celebrate the power of art.

Meeting Challenges Halfway at the Malta Book Festival 2023

Malta boasts 58 registered publishing entities, hosting hundreds of authors writing books across a wide swathe of genres and formats. These numbers emerge from an NSO survey into the book industry, conducted on the basis of the year 2021. Effectively, we could say that there are ‘more authors than churches’ in Malta, with over 700 authors populating the National Book Council’s database.

This hints at a varied industry, the stakeholders of which all fall under the remit of the National Book Council, which seeks to assist, support, and represent Maltese authors and publishers, as well as related industry stakeholders such as translators and illustrators. While the Maltese context does have its own particularities, neither is it immune to the industry’s wider, global realities, a case in point being the price hike on paper caused by the war in Ukraine, which continues to be felt across the board. Maltese publishers must also bear the brunt of this unfortunate phenomenon.

The National Book Council continues to advocate for increased governmental support to aid publishers, whether in this particular challenge or others, and it also offers direct financial aid through the Malta Book Fund, which last year issued a grand total of €120,000 to various industry stakeholders, targeting projects of high cultural value which may not have a straightforward route to market success.

But while some challenges may be met halfway through financial incentives, others require a systemic — or cultural — shift in attitude from all parties involved, which takes a certain degree of workshopping to be borne out. The slow uptake of ebooks bears pondering (the NSO survey saw 146 new ebooks issued in Malta in 2021, contrasted with printed counterparts of 418 in the same year), as does the worryingly high number of authors published without adequate contracts in place.

Maximising Solar Panel Efficiency: The DustPV Project

The DustPV project, led by Prof. Ing. Joseph Micallef, aims to determine the optimal timing for cleaning solar panels using innovative sensor technology and weather data analysis. By addressing the challenges of dust accumulation on photovoltaic panels, the project seeks to enhance solar panel performance and contribute to Malta’s renewable energy goals.

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment