After a bit of pomp and circumstance, the Tûranor Planet Solar (an Elvish name meaning “power of the sun” in the Lord of the Ring trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien) was lifted out into the world on its first adventure. But what makes this boat so special? Sure, you may notice the usual carbon-sandwich design within the 30-meter long catamaran (the largest ever built), but for the truly unique you’ll need to look a bit higher. This high-performance catamaran’s deck is covered with photovoltaic panels, 825 in all, giving it nearly 94,000 kilowatts (KW) of power.

In 2006, Raphaël Domjan, the project leader and skipper, came up with the idea to circumnavigate the globe in a boat powered solely on solar energy. Domjan recruited German-based Knierim Yachtbau to aid in his concept due to the company’s experience with individual high-tech yacht construction. “In the design, we started with a blank slate,” says Yachtbau’s CEO Steffan Muller. “We soon realized that in order to give the boat enough surface space to accommodate the solar panels, the catamaran most likely needed to be a multihull design. A multihull would provide a large surface area and create less drag through the water.” However, the team needed help determining if the best multihull would be a catamaran or a trimaran. After speaking with various designers, they chose Craig Loomes Design, based in Auckland, New Zealand, to design a wave-piercing catamaran.

From the beginning, Muller says it was clear that the boat needed to be as light as possible in order to use the energy generated from the panels effectively. “On the other hand, however, we knew it needed to be strong enough to survive any storm or large waves that occur in the ocean. The only solution was to implement composite technology using a carbon fiber sandwich,” he says. “We ran various computer simulations and predictive programming to identify how each section of the boat should be constructed.” Eventually the team created tank testing with a 1:20 scale model for safety requirements, which was monitored by Germanischer Lloyd (GL). Maneuvers in a catamaran of this kind had never been done, so the team needed to understand the behavior of the materials in different conditions to know how much power is needed to run at various speeds. This process took approximately nine months then moved on to another 16 months in manufacturing.