Full Steam Ahead For First Ever Diesel-Killing, High Speed Hydrogen Fuel Cell Ferry

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Things certainly are moving along quickly in the hydrogen fuel cell field. Just last summer CleanTechnica took note of plans for a futuristic new fuel cell ferry boat slated to ply the waters of San Francisco Bay, and the vessel is on track to launch — literally — next year according to its developer, Golden Gate Zero Emissions Marine.

Rendering (screen shot): via GGZEM.

The project is also interesting because it involves the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, demonstrating yet again how DOE keeps finding new ways to undercut President* Trump’s pro-fossil energy messages by continuing to promote cutting edge clean tech. If all goes according to plan, the new vessel will help push the commercialization of renewable hydrogen and crowd diesel out of the maritime transportation picture.

Fuel Cell Vessels And Clean Ports

Golden Gate’s journey toward zero emission ferrying first crossed the CleanTechnica radar last June, when we noted that the firm Incat Crowther was tapped to design the company’s new 70-foot aluminum catamaran ferry, dubbed Water-Go-Round.

The California Air Resources Board greenlighted the project as part of a $20 million cap-and-trade funding package aimed at reducing emissions in the off-road sector, for which water transport certainly qualifies.

Hydrogen fuel cells have been making inroads into the shipping and logistics fields, where the advantages of quick refueling and long range come into play.

Port cities like San Francisco are a particular area of focus for the US EPA. The Obama administration put the pressure on to improve local public health in port cities by reducing emissions from trucks and service equipment as well as watercraft. Oddly enough, EPA still appears to be avidly pursuing its clean ports mission despite some troubles involving the agency’s leadership.

Where were we? Oh right, last summer’s new CARB funding package. Golden Gate (aka GGZEM) was one among with several other fuel cell projects in the package, garnering a $3 million slice of the pie towards the overall cost of $5.5 million.

If all goes according to plan, Water-Go-Round will be the first in a fleet of clean vessels aimed at meeting the zero emissions pledge of ferry and tour boat operator Red and White Fleet.

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Speaking of Red and White, the firm began business in 1892 burning heaven knows what to power its vessels around the San Francisco Bay.

Well, that was then. In recent years Red and White has been giving a pat on the back for converting to a succession of cleaner fuels. It began working on hydrogen fuel cells with Sandia and other partners in 2014.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, Sandia produced an encouraging feasibility study, which provided a pathway for the construction and operation of a 35-knot 150-passenger fast ferry, and of course Red and White took note.

The firm is also known for its commitment to waste reduction and water conservation btw.

US Energy Dept. Hearts Fuel Cell Ferry

That leads us to the involvement of Sandia National Laboratories in the project.

GGZEM co-founder and CEO/CTO Dr. Joe Pratt was the team leader for the lab’s SF-BREEZE hydrogen fuel cell feasibility study. They give credit to Red and White president Tom Escher for inspiring the research in 2015, when he adopted a zero emissions goal for the company by 2025.

Fuel cells in smaller watercraft and specialty vessels are already becoming a thing. Designing a system for large, high-speed, commercially competitive ferry boats presents a different matrix of challenges.

The Sandia study looked at technological issues specific to maritime use in the San Francisco Bay, including the use of fuel cells in a large, fast watercraft and the possibility of encountering regulatory roadblocks.

Now the fun part begins. On November 8, GGZEM announced the ceremonial launch — figuratively speaking, that is — of the construction schedule for Water-Go-Round.

The builder is Bay Ship & Yacht Co., a local firm that began life in 1977 with a focus on wooden vessels. Now well into the 21st century, the company counts the United States Coast Guard, Navy, Army, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration among its clients, so there’s that.

Sandia also comes in for the performance assessment phase of the project. The idea is to spend three months monitoring the performance of Water-Go-Round in the San Francisco Bay. Along with surveys of its operators and passengers, the analysis will help determine future commercial applications.

Clean Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vessel

Hydrogen fuel cell transportation, that’s a sustainability non-starter under current circumstances, in which hydrogen is sourced primarily from natural gas and coal gas.

Like we said, though, things are changing quickly. Renewable pathways for hydrogen are emerging. Biogas is in the mix, but for watercraft one obvious choice is electrolysis, in which an electrical current is used to “split” hydrogen from water. Source the electrical current from renewable energy, and there’s your renewable hydrogen.

Our friends over at Maritime Executive report that the plan is to start Water-Go-Round off with conventional hydrogen and transition to renewable fuel as the cost becomes more competitive.

How soon will that happen? The US Department of Energy has been bigly promoting renewable H2 with the help of private sector partners. Among recent awardees is a Florida based company called Dioxide Materials, which is working on a low cost electrolyzer that eschews platinum and other precious metals.

Dioxide last crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2015, so we are reaching out to the company for an update.

In the time being, they have been making some interesting moves including a partnership with 3M. Work on an electrolyzer designed for extracting oxygen from carbon dioxide has been supported by ARPA-E and NASA is eyeballing it for space missions.

For you fans of Mars (the TV series), one of those missions involves the Red Planet so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

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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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