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This sleek 60-foot yacht from OceansLab will put fuel cells to the test under extreme racing conditions (image courtesy of OceansLab).


Big Test Coming For Hydrogen Fuel Cells At Sea

This sleek 60-foot yacht from OceansLab will put fuel cells to the test under extreme racing conditions.

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The jury is still out on hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars, but practically every other means of conveyance is fair game. That includes the elite world of yacht racing. The clean tech accelerator OceansLab has announced plans to showcase hydrogen fuel cells in high profile races, with an eye on decarbonizing the maritime industry.

IMOCA Hearts Sustainability

The yacht in question is a sleek 60-foot sailing yacht that conforms to the standards set forth by IMOCA, the International Monohull Open Class Association. IMOCA was founded in 1991 and earned official recognition by World Sailing (formerly the International Sailing Federation) in 1998 as the manager of rules and standards for the class of 60-foot open monohull yachts.

IMOCA explains that its goal is “to develop the fleet of monohulls and offer its skippers an attractive and coherent sports programme,” with an emphasis on sustainability.

“Central to IMOCA’s concerns as it evolves is how to constantly respect the environment better,” they explain. “Renewable energies are not merely viewed as a resource, but also a key element in terms of performance.”

A High Profile Showcase For Hydrogen Fuel Cells

OceansLab has high expectations for its new vessel. “…this new IMOCA will see a unique and innovative ocean racing campaign with the clear aim of demonstrating scalable clean technologies within the maritime sector,” the firm stated in a press release last January.

“IMOCA race boats are the most innovative and extreme of ocean-going vessels. They are an ideal platform to showcase vital clean technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells, and prove their durability in the harshest of ocean environments,” elaborated OceansLab co-founder, CTO and well known racing skipper Phil Sharp.

Oceanslab’s yacht is on track to launch in time to  compete in the IMOCA Globe Series this year. Its inaugural race will be the Transat Jacques Vabre in October. A qualifying race for the 2024 Vendée Globe is also in the works, among others.

Who Needs A Hydrogen Fuel Cell On A Racing Yacht?

If you’re wondering why a racing yacht with the latest high tech sails needs hydrogen fuel cells when it’s supposed to be using wind power, that’s a good question, and it’s one to which IMOCA has devoted considerable attention.

When IMOCA yachts are on the race course, their propellers are sealed and sails provide the only propulsion. They need something else to provide propulsion at other times, for example when maneuvering around harbors or responding to an emergency at sea.

IMOCA yachts also require energy to run all other shipboard operations, and they need enough energy to be self-sustaining for days on end, and that has been a challenge.

“…to eat, drink, study the weather or ensure that everything aboard the boat is working smoothly, the skipper has to generate his own electricity and manage his reserves down to the smallest detail,” IMOCA explains.

Historically, that has meant loading up diesel fuel to run a generator, though alternatives are beginning to emerge. IMOCA notes that most yachts in the fleet now have hydrogenerators, which are underwater turbines that can be towed behind a ship. A handful of the them also have wind turbines or solar panels.

That’s a good start, but it’s not enough to keep up with new maritime technology. The use of ship-board energy has been increasing along with a growing list of high tech maritime gear, in addition to all the systems needed for sustaining human life during a race. IMOCA lists the navigation console, radar, canting keel (a device that swings out to steady a boat when needed), desalination equipment, and wi-fi, among other energy-sucking gear.

Seagoing Fuel Cells For Everyone

The challenge for OceansLab is to demonstrate that its first-of-its-kind fuel cell solution can outperform other diesel alternatives under extreme racing conditions.

“OceansLab will be the first race boat to integrate a hydrogen-electric energy system, technology that is applicable to a vast range of commercial and recreational vessels,” OceansLab declares. “The IMOCA’s zero emission energy system will power all on board energy, in addition to propulsion outside of the races.”

The OceansLab yacht is deploying a fuel cell system developed by the OceansLab spinoff Genevos, which was also co-founded by Sharp. Its solution, the Hydrogen Power Module, is a modular plug-and-play system that can be configured to fit the energy needs of a wide range of recreational, sport, and commercial craft.

“The HPM is a fully-integrated marine hydrogen fuel cell power pack intended to be installed above or below deck to meet power needs from 15 kW to 500 kW,” Genevos explained last year, when it secured approval in principle from Lloyd’s Register for maritime use. The milestone followed a series of other stringent maritime reviews including the International Code of Safety for ships using gases or other low-flashpoint fuels

For those of you keeping score at home, Genevos sourced the technology from the leading engineering firm Cummins, which acquired the fuel cell startup Hydrogenics in 2019.

All This, & Solar Power, Too

The fuel cell system is just part of OceansLab’s zero emissions plan. On June 6, OceansLab announced that the advanced electric propulsion firm Oceanvolt and the solar cell innovator Maxeon Solar Technologies are also official partners in the project.

CleanTechnica took note a while back when Maxeon hooked up with the leading US solar company SunPower in a solar panel manufacturing deal. Maxeon is known for its lightweight, durable thin film technology, which it will apply to the OceansLab yacht.

“Interdigitated Back Contact (IBC) cells will be encapsulated into a protective film to ensure resistance against water and impact,” Maxeon explains. “Over 1,000 solar cells will be installed onto the deck of the IMOCA covering 16 m2, capable of creating a total power output of more than 3.6kW.”

So, Where Is All The Hydrogen Coming From?

Fuel cells are slowly beginning to emerge in other maritime fields, including ferry boats. Proving their seaworthiness under competitive conditions could help accelerate the trend. Genevos has already racked up a string of credits for its HPM fuel cells, including the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label, the Monaco Prize for Innovation in Renewable Hydrogen and Transportation, the 2022 Electric & Hybrid Propulsion System of the Year Award, and the Sud-Ouest Region Nouvelle-Aquitaine Maritime Innovation Trophy.

The big question is what OceansLab plans to do about the hydrogen situation. Almost all of the global supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas and other fossil sources.

Fortunately, the cost of sustainable hydrogen is coming down, drawing from water, biogas, and other renewable resources. OceansLab has already incorporated green hydrogen into its plans, in a partnership with the government of Jersey, a self-governing island off the coast of France.

In an interesting twist, the US Navy has been exploring new E-fuel technologies, including the use of on-board electrolysis systems to produce hydrogen from seawater while at sea. The system would double as a desalination and purification system to provide potable water for crews at sea.

Could a future iteration of the OceansLab yacht include on-board electrolysis system to produce fuel and water on-the-go? If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Find me on Spoutible: @TinaMCasey or LinkedIn @TinaMCasey or Mastodon @Casey or Post @tinamcasey.

Photo: This zero emission racing yacht will launch without any fossil fuels on board (courtesy of OceansLab).

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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