Sandia National Laboratories says a hydrogen fuel cell-powered research boat is technically and economically feasible today.
The lab network has released a report describing the specifications of an ideal hydrogen fuel-cell research vessel. Currently, research boats are largely powered by diesel, but a shift to hydrogen fuel cells could offer some significant advantages over traditional technologies. Not least among these could be a complete reduction in carbon dioxide and other emissions that contribute to global warming and sea pollution during use.
Building such a vessel would require an entrepreneur to find funding and a buyer, but Sandia’s previous work on hydrogen-powered boats has sparked just that kind of entrepreneurship already with a company called Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine (GGZEM). GGZEM was founded by a researcher who worked on a earlier Sandia project, studying the feasibility of hydrogen-powered passenger ferries. Now, the company is building the world’s first commercial hydrogen-powered passenger ferry, called the Water-Go-Round. GGZEM confirmed to Ars that the Water-Go-Round is on-track to launch in Fall 2019.
Fuel cell on a boat
Hydrogen fuel cell-powered transportation, on water or on land, has yet to break into the mainstream. This is in part due to the lack of infrastructure supporting the transportation of hydrogen fuel, and in part due to the fact that hydrogen fuel can be difficult to store (it prefers very cold or high-pressure environments). Fuel-grade hydrogen also requires energy to make, leading some opponents to contend that unless renewable energy is being used to make fuel, hydrogen fuel cells really aren’t all that green.
But there are advantages to hydrogen fuel cells as well. The only emission they release is water, so if hydrogen is made with renewable energy, it is indeed a very green source of fuel. Hydrogen can also be stored and used at will in a way that renewable energy can’t be—just fill up the tank and you’re good to go, no need to wait for good conditions for solar panels to start working.
For a research vessel, the emissions issue is a big one. On a hydrogen-fuel-powered boat, researchers could take air samples without concern about diesel emissions sullying the data. Additionally, Sandia reports that “Hydrogen can be readily used in Arctic Oceanographic exploration because hydrogen is not susceptible to the waxing/ freezing problems of the petroleum-based fuels.” An electrically-powered hydrogen fuel cell boat is also much quieter, so sonar mapping could be improved.
Another advantage is that the waste from hydrogen fuel cells can be consumed. “Fuel cells generate pure, deionized water which can be captured for other purposes such as drinking water for the scientific staff and crew, or for experimental and analytical purposes,” the report notes. “This can offset the weight of potable or experimental water needed to be carried on-board.”
And none of those potential advantages includes the significant fact that such a boat would contribute less to climate change than a similar diesel vessel.
Sandia worked with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to determine how the vessel, called the Zero-V, would be used and how it would refuel. It also consulted with naval architecture firm Glosten as well as DNV GL, which does risk management for maritime operations.
The Zero-V is designed to carry fewer people than a ferry, but for a much longer period of time (2,400 nautical miles or a 15-day excursion, to be exact). It requires propulsion devices on either side of its hull to stabilize the boat if it has to lower equipment to the ocean floor for research purposes. And in addition to 11 crew and 18 scientist berths, the boat needs to house three laboratories.
“Part of the solution was selecting a trimaran boat design,” a Sandia press release noted. “A trimaran has three parallel hulls, and is usually used for high-speed boats. The design offers a great deal of space above deck for the tanks, and adequate below-deck space for other science instrumentation and machinery.”
Scripps also identified ports of call for such a vessel where hydrogen fuel companies could refuel the boat by truck. Nimitz Marine Facility in San Diego, Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in Monterey, Pier 54 in San Francisco, and Wharf 5 in Redwood City could all accommodate hydrogen refueling operations, the report said.
The problem is always cost
While the vessel that Sandia and its partners developed would be economic to build and is estimated to cost no more than an equivalent diesel-powered vehicle, the one thing standing in the way is operating cost. Unlike with a battery-electric vehicle, where initial cost is high but maintenance and refueling costs are much lower, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles struggle in long-term competitiveness due to the cost of hydrogen fuel.
The researchers estimated that, using natural gas-derived hydrogen fuel, the Zero-V would cost seven percent more than a comparable diesel vessel to maintain and keep fueled. But natural gas-derived hydrogen fuel offers no overall emissions benefits compared to diesel when the production, storage, and transportation of hydrogen is factored in. Researchers also spoke to two hydrogen fuel companies that said they would be able to produce hydrogen from renewable energy in the quantities that the ship would need, but at that point, “the total annual O&M costs for operating the Zero-V are 41.9 percent higher,” the report stated.
Still, in the Sandia press release Scripps fleet manager Bruce Applegate was optimistic and compared hydrogen-powered vessels today to solar panels several years ago. “Like other game-changing ideas, this approach initially seems expensive. But solar power was very expensive not too long ago, and now it’s affordable and widely adopted. Hydrogen fuel cells are just as transformative a technology.”
Listing image by Glosten