Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vessels Leap From Prototype Sub To Full-Scale Catamaran Ferry

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Renewable hydrogen fans and catamaran fans both have a little something to cheer about this week. The US is going to get its first commercial-scale hydrogen fuel cell vessel in the form of a spanking new 70-foot aluminum catamaran from the company Incat Crowther. The catamaran specialist is known for its snazzy ferry boats and need-for-speed vessels designed to chase down illegal fishing boats, do search and rescue, and support research missions. Sweet!

This is a big deal because, as longtime readers of CleanTechnica may recall, the last time we checked in on floating fuel cells it was back in 2016 and the topic was this dinky little prototype unmanned fuel cell submarine that the the US Navy was messing around with in partnership with GM (so yes, that’s the little sub in the photo above, not a 70-foot catamaran. Check out Incat Crowther for that).

One Giant Step For Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Fuel cell vehicles are only just beginning to ease into the mainstream, and here in the US they’re off to a good start in the shipping and logistics sector.

Think warehouses and forklifts and you’re on the right track. States with busy shipping ports are also looking at fuel cells to tamp down on regional air pollution, and that’s where the new $3 million grant comes in.

The clamshells were awarded to the California-based company Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine to build the new catamaran. The funds came through the California Air Resources Board from the state’s California Climate Investments cap-and-trade program.

GGZEM is on a mission to attract more private sector investors to clean tech and CCI focuses on low-income areas, which brings an important environmental justice angle into the picture.

Shipping emissions get concentrated in port areas and there’s a global impact, too. Here’s GGZEM chief Joseph Pratt on that topic:

If the shipping industry were a country, it would be ranked between Germany and Japan as the sixth-largest contributor to global CO2 emissions. Helping the maritime industry as a whole implement zero emissions drive technology will not only add operational benefits to the myriad of business owners but also have a profound impact on the reduction of global pollution and CO2 emissions.

Aside from the funding source and the Incat Crowther design, the project has attracted a raft of partners:

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is administering the project, alongside other partners including Bay Ship & Yacht Co., BAE Systems, Hydrogenics, Red and White Fleet, Incat Crowther, Hexagon Composites, OMB-Saleri, the Port of San Francisco, and Sandia National Laboratories.

One Giant Step For Renewable Hydrogen

You can get more details about the new fuel cell vessel from the GGZEM website.

While you’re doing that, let’s look at the renewable hydrogen angle. The new catamaran already has a name, the Water-Go-Round, which refers to the apparent source of the hydrogen for powering the fuel cells.

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cells generate electricity on-the-go through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen gas is not a standalone fuel (like a lump of coal, for example). It has to be sourced from something else, and right now the main source is fossil natural gas. Yikes!

There are also a dozen or so renewable pathways for generating hydrogen, and the main one to emerge so far is “splitting” hydrogen from water, so there’s your Water-Go-Round reference.

Check back into that partner list and you’ll see the firm Hydrogenics, which specializes in water-splitting (aka electrolysis) systems.

What About On Board Renewable Hydrogen?

Hmmm…that gets us to thinking back on the US Navy. A while ago, CleanTechnica covered a Navy project for a water-splitting system that could be parked on board a vessel. The idea would be to generate renewable hydrogen fuel while at sea.

GGZEM isn’t quite that ambitious, as Water-Go-Round is designed to carry enough hydrogen gas for up to two days of work.

But, now we’re wondering if on-board electrolysis could be in the works sometime in the future. A practically infinite, renewable fuel sure would come in handy for chasing down those illegal fishing boats.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to GGZEM and its partners for more insights on that score, so stay tuned for an update.

In the meantime, the project is on track for a quick turnaround.

Sandia and CARB are tasked with tracking the vessel’s performance as a ferryboat for a three-month period after it launches into the San Francisco Bay sometime in 2019, under the flag of Red and White Fleet.

They’ll also be assessing passenger reactions, so if you’re one of those people who loves standing in the back of ferry boats but hates engine noise and diesel fumes, you’re in for a different experience on the Water-Go-Round.

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Photo: unmanned UAV submarine via US Navy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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