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The BMW i8 Roadster with the Malizia in the background.

WILFRIED WULFF/BMW

Boris Herrmann likes the new BMW i8 Roadster so much, he’s going to sail it around the world, in a manner of speaking.

The plug-in hybrid, along with its i8 Coupe cousin, looks as if it will effectively supply the electric battery that will power Herrmann’s racing yacht in the upcoming Vendée Globe event, beginning in November, 2020.

The race, which starts and ends every four years in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, requires participants to sail alone, non-stop, for more than two months. It’s considered an extreme test of skill and endurance.

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“It’s the Mount Everest of the sea,” says Herrmann, 36, who is aiming to become the first German to win the event. “It’s the hardest and most famous sailing event in the world.”

The plan is for his boat, the 18-metre Malizia, to be outfitted with similar battery technology found in the i8. While the sports car – which goes on sale in May – uses eight battery modules for a total peak electric-driven output of 105 kilowatts or 143 horsepower, the Malizia will incorporate a single module to serve several functions.

For BMW, the race is an opportunity to show that its car technology can be repurposed for other uses. Experts believe such efforts are the tip of the iceberg for car makers that are now investing in a number of advanced technologies, including electrification.

The Malizia will be outfitted with similar battery technology found in the i8.

Andreas Lindlahr/BMW

“If they are now doing this technology in-house, then they’re going to develop a lot of [intellectual property] that’s transferable to other markets,” says Olivier Trescases, associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at University of Toronto.

“It’s a huge investment, but it might yield revenue in totally new areas.”

If all goes well in the Malizia’s tests, the electric battery will be able to power the boat’s motor in emergency situations and supply energy for its various on-board electronics. More importantly, it will help fill and empty its ballasts with water, which keep the craft stable.

The amount of water in the ballasts needs to be commensurate with what the sails are doing at any given time. The faster the boat is moving, the more water is needed to weigh it down and counterbalance the force of the wind.

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Racing yachts typically use diesel engines to fill and empty ballasts, so they need to carry fuel. An electrical system wouldn’t just be lighter, it also wouldn’t need diesel since the battery could instead use the boat’s forward movement to recharge.

All told, an electrical system could be up to 20 per cent lighter than a diesel counterpart and shave up to 100 kilograms off total weight, Herrmann says. That, in turn, could help the boat go faster.

“A hundred kilos is massive for us,” he says. “When you make the boat lighter by taking out the heavy diesel engine … you can have a bigger water ballast tank.”

BMW is also handling the seat design, which will prioritize comfort since it's where Boris Herrmann will spending most of his journey.

BMW

BMW is also handling the seat design on the Malizia, which sails under the flag of the Yacht Club de Monaco. Pierre Casiraghi, the youngest son of Princess Caroline of Monaco, serves as the club’s vice-president. The ergonomic chair weighs just 3.5 kilograms and is similar to that found in the i8. Maximum comfort is a priority since it’s where Herrmann will spend most of his planned 74-day journey.

The auto maker expects that much of the experience and knowledge gained from the project will transfer back into car design.

“This gives you a look into the future of what a real lightweight seat might look like,” says Thomas Hahn, head of technology transfer at BMW.

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The integration of the battery is being handled by Torqeedo, which produces electric-motor systems for the marine market. The German company says it has sold 70,000 electric-propulsion systems, some of which are in Canada – including the Queen Elizabeth Dr. ferry that services the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.

The company started out in 2006 using the kinds of lithium-ion batteries found in power tools, but in recent years has shifted to systems produced by auto makers. Car companies are now producing better batteries that are more suited for longer usage and ranges.

“If you make something inferior but environmentally friendly, people won’t love it and may not buy it,” says co-founder and chief executive Christoph Ballin. “But if you make something superior, they’ll love it without even looking at its environmental impact.”

BMW expects that much of the experience and knowledge gained from the project will transfer back into car design.

Andreas Lindlahr/BMW

The move toward electrification, as well as autonomy, is opening up new horizons for car makers – such as the marine market.

While there has been considerable attention paid to newcomers such as Tesla, Uber and Google potentially stealing business from traditional auto makers, the old guard are also quickly developing new capabilities that could help them enter other industries.

One likely avenue for car makers producing electric batteries is finding a “second life” for them, says the University of Toronto’s Trescases.

Electric-vehicle batteries degrade, so they inevitably provide shorter ranges and charge capacities, but that doesn’t mean they need to be scrapped. They could be repurposed for stationary uses, such as powering homes. Some car makers are already thinking about this market.

Tesla, for example, is currently selling its Powerwall home battery in a number of countries. Nissan is also planning to expand its Leaf-to-Home effort, where its electric Leaf car can itself act as a backup home-power supply, beyond its initial availability in Japan.

Car makers will be able to take advantage of such new opportunities if they design their batteries to require minimal effort for reconfiguration after serving their initial purpose.

“The battery still has a lot of value,” Trescases says. “The future is all about storage.”

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval

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