At first glance, Clipperton doesn’t look like much: just a tiny island lost in the Pacific Ocean, 1,200 kilometers southwest of Mexico. But a closer look reveals a rich diversity: this inhabited atoll measuring five square kilometers is home to many species that don’t exist anywhere else on earth.
In 2005, a group of 25 scientists set off on a four-month expedition to study this island’s unique flora and fauna. The team was led by explorer Jean-Louis Etienne, already familiar with such remote locations as the Arctic and Antarctica.
Born near Toulouse, in the south of France, in 1946, Etienne trained as a medical doctor and went on to specialize in sports biology and nutrition. In the 1970s, he began undertaking research expeditions and in 1986 he became the first person to reach the North Pole solo, overland, pulling his own sled for 63 days. In 1989 and 1990, he co-led the international Transantarctica expedition, which completed the longest overland crossing of Antarctica.
The Transantarctica expedition used Saft batteries, so Etienne was already familiar with the technology when he undertook his Clipperton expedition. This mission, however, was different. For the Clipperton undertaking, the temperatures were inverted, from -40°C in Antarctica to +40° C in the Pacific Ocean.
While two high-power, 6 kWh lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries might not seem like obvious items to pack for a trip to a tropical island, they were actually critical to the success of the expedition. Paired with solar panels and wind turbines, they powered the refrigeration equipment, electric lighting, and the desalinization plant for 250 liters of drinking water a day, as well as computers and an antenna that allowed scientists to have an internet connection and instantly share their discoveries with the world.
If his expedition had used traditional, lead-acid batteries, then Etienne calculated that they would have weighed three metric tons. Thankfully, Li-ion batteries have better energy density and are much lighter, so the explorer’s team needed to carry only 250 kg.
A few unplanned strains were put on the batteries: driven by their discoveries, scientists often worked well into the night, requiring simultaneously internet connection and lighting. In addition, three different film crews visited the island for media coverage. The batteries thus had to support extra people, as well as recharge filming equipment. Luckily, they held up remarkably well, and there were no power cuts or other battery-related problems during the entire four months.
During their stay on the island, the scientists constructed a makeshift village, powered by the twin batteries, which they named Marine and Océane. Etienne travelled not just with his colleagues, but also with his wife, Elsa, and their sons, three-year-old Elliot and nine-month-old Ulysse.
The expedition team was able to identify and study 32 different species of birds, such as the large colony of masked booby. They also explored the great diversity of the island’s marine biology, from coral and algae to crabs and other crustaceans, and learned more about climate, pollution, and even the non-native population of rats.
As the expedition was fully powered by renewable energy, it was also a perfect opportunity to publicize sustainable development and to learn more about our planet while taking care of it.