FLYING ON SEAWEED AND SUNSHINE
Raphael Dinelli is planning to fly across the Atlantic in a yet-to-be-built plane powered by algae and solar power – but you too could have a green adventure. Mike Peake describes how
A group of French students have developed a car that can travel more than 9,000 miles to the gallon. Over in Germany, boffins are tinkering with an electric vehicle that they say will take them almost 1,609km on a single charge. And a globe-trotting French yachtsman named Raphaël Dinelli has announced his intention to fly across the Atlantic on an as-yet-tobe-made aeroplane powered by algae. If, as many people predict, the end of the 20th and start of the 21st centuries will be remembered as the era when the world woke up to environmental issues, it’s little wonder that modern-day adventurers are imbuing their challenges with a distinctly green hue.
After all, why be remembered as someone who set out to do something monumental merely for personal glory if your place in the history books could be secured because of infinitely more planet- friendly reasons? In other words, if Christopher Columbus were to set off on a westerly direction with a fairly blankish-looking map today, wouldn’t he be doing so in a ship made of reclaimed timber and a promise to compost all of his onboard waste for use on the galley’s organic vegetable garden?
“I want to attempt what Charles Lindbergh did in 1927, when he became the first pilot to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in a single-seat, single-
engine purpose-built monoplane. But I want to do this without a carbon footprint,” says Dinelli, whose recently announced plans to hop from France to the US on a plant-powered plane have bagged him a whole new wave of column inches.
Dinelli is no stranger to the limelight, having once competed in the Vendée Globe around-theworld sailing race as a “pirate” after his late entry was turned down by officials. When his boat capsized, the charismatic adventurer is said to have just whiled away time in his life raft as he waited for help.
Importantly, it is 45-year-old adventurous Dinelli’s experience of the seas – and specifically their recently changing nature – that has prompted his latest challenge.
“I have sailed across all the oceans,” he tells Friday, “and for sailors global warming is a reality. When I entered my first Vendée Globe race in 1996, the only danger in Antarctica was monitoring the growlers [small bits of sea ice] that risked causing damage to the hull. Since 2004, in the same areas, race organisers have sent us the position of icebergs as large as a stadium.”
Seemingly undeterred by the fact that his escapades thus far have been more Blackbeard than Biggles, he has spent the past 18 months learning to fly, and he aims to be ready to take off next year.
To aid those all-important green credentials, Dinelli’s lightweight, 750kg plane Eraole – designed by him and built by his team – will run on a combination of solar power and a diesel engine powered by oil extracted from micro-algae. He says this bio-energy will leave no carbon footprint, and he hopes to show the aviation industry what might be possible for the future.
“And I love challenges!” he says. “I really like the aviation pioneers’ enthusiasm for testing their machines despite the risks – and I like to be inspired by these sensations.”
In the decade that has passed since former US Vice President Al Gore made the world sit up and listen with his thought-provoking documentary
An Inconvenient Truth, which focused on the ecological damage caused by industrial and domestic pollution, the planet has changed considerably.
Perhaps the most environmentally significant decade in history – or, if you’re a sceptic, an out-and-out con in which cash-hungry ‘green’ businesses have been quietly chuckling at our collective gullibility – the past 10 years have seen a seismic shift in thinking.
Today there are eco fashion initiatives such as the Green Carpet Challenge (in which A-list designers are asked to propagate sustainable style); green conservation competitions such as theWhitley Awards, which have been dubbed the Green Oscars; and environmentally friendly hotels, one of the newest being the Novotel Dubai Al Barsha, with its eye-catching hanging gardens. Even the world-famous Welcome To Las Vegas road sign is going green. Once a bright, burning introduction to the world of excess just beyond it, as of this year it will be powered by the sun.
One of the biggest names on the eco block is the X Prize Organisation (or XPRIZE as it is commonly written), a global leader in big-money contests that have an environmentally friendly outlook. Three years ago a US company scooped a million dollars for coming up with a way to safely burn off spilled oil that floated like a black carpet on top of the Gulf Of Mexico; current initiatives in development include a ‘waste to wealth’ prize, which looks at ways to turn trash into reusable energy, as well as a rather unsavoury (if ingenious) one aimed at
coming up with a way to purify urine so that it is safe to drink.
The XPRIZE organisation has also committed to creating three new contests pertaining to the world’s oceans by 2020 – and they’re looking for suggestions. “We believe great ideas can come from anywhere,” says Dr Peter H Diamandis, chairman and CEO of XPRIZE.
“We know crowdsourcing has enormous potential, so we’re inviting the public to help us hone in on the grand challenges facing our oceans.”
If the words of Dr Diamandis and the pioneering spirit of Raphaël Dinelli have got you thinking that some sort of green-powered boating trip across the Atlantic will win you fame and glory (and eco kudos by the bucketload), you’re seven years too late. A vessel called
Sun 21 did exactly that in May 2007. Fuelled by the sun, it punted for almost four months from the south of Spain to Miami and is proof that even in green circles, you need to pull out all the stops to bag a ‘first’.
Just such a challenge has recently been embraced by UAE university students who combined forces to try to create the fastest hybrid-electric car in the GCC. Prizes included awards for the speediest vehicle and also the greatest distance travelled on a single battery; what is surprising, perhaps, is that eco-challenges of this nature have actually been going on for decades.
Every two years theWorld Solar Challenge takes place in Australia, in which teams from around the world are invited to submit their prototype vehicles for testing. It began in 1982 when two advocates of the thennew ‘solar powered thing’ set out in a home-made solar car named Quiet
Achiever in an attempt to traverse Australia. TheWorld Solar Challenge was born five years later, and today contestants, using no more than six square metres of solar panels, attempt to see how quickly their vehicles can cover a set distance. Last October a Dutch team put in the fastest time on the 3,000km journey with an average speed of 90kmh to win their fifth race in a row.
The quest to squeeze every last drop out of more everyday fuels has been going longer still, with engineers trying to work miracles out of petrol for more than 70 years.
In 1939, a group of Shell Oil employees in Illinois, US, made a bet amongst themselves to see who could travel furthest on the same amount of fuel. The wager eventually led to the creation of the Shell Ecomarathon – one of the biggest and longest-running green competitions on the planet.
This year, three separate events – in Manila, Rotterdam and Houston – will pit some of the finest minds in engineering against each other as they battle to get as far as they possibly can on a single litre of petrol (or its equivalent). The current record – set in 2005 in a hydrogen-powered car – stands at a mind-boggling 3,836km by Swiss Team ETH Zürich.
Not too far behind, however, is French team Microjoule, based in the Loire Valley – and they use good old, regular petrol. Having clocked up more than 2,900km on a single litre on a real street circuit (on a test track it was north of 3,500km), they make the green credentials of the current crop of eco-friendly production cars look laughable.
But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to enter into the spirit of eco challenges. Your next holiday could very easily be an environmentally friendly adventure, such as those offered by Canada’s Eagle Wing Tours, which promises carbon-neutral whale-watching trips off the coast of Victoria. Or you could stand at Everest Base Camp and feel good about doing it the greenest way possible by hooking up with Eco Trip Nepal. And then there’s the wellestablished Responsible Travel, who promise, “Richer and more authentic travel experiences that also benefit communities and conservation.”
But to really make a difference, think big and take a leaf out of Dinelli’s book – or that of aristocratic British adventurer David de Rothschild: his 2010 ‘Plastiki’ expedition, in which he sailed a 60ft catamaran made out of 12,000 recycled plastic bottles across the Pacific, was designed to raise awareness of the junk that is being left in the world’s oceans.
There’s even an app to get you started. It’s called EcoChallenge, it’s free, it’s made by some clever Germans, and it promises to give you new green challenges each week – such as “cook a meal for your friends using only locally grown ingredients”.
While it’s not quite up there with flying to the moon in a cardboard rocket powered by the breath of a thousand bees, it’s a start – and who knows where it might lead? As Dinelli himself says, “Life is an adventure.”
He says, “As children we explored our environment, we took risks, we tested, listened, tasted and came to our own conclusions.
“Adventure is one of our last free spaces. No one can stop us from imagining, creating and inventing. And it is an amazing feeling to test yourself and say, ‘I can do it!’”
‘Adventure is one of our last free spaces. No one can stop us from imagining and creating’
A thirst for adventure has seen Raphaël Dinelli strap himself to a solar-powered plane
ENVIRONMENT Never shy of adventure, Dinelli sails to the finish line of the transatlantic solo race Route du Rhum
Could a plant-powered plane take Dinelli around the world?
Britain’s’ Mike Golding, and France’s Dinelli and Anne Liardet before the Vendée Globe race
A stranded Dinelli is helped from his life raft after his boat capsized in the Vendée Globe race
Dinelli points out the solar-powered panels that will make his trips plain sailing
A man on a mission: Dinelli boards his yacht to take part in the Vendée Globe