As a clean yet effective energy source, hydrogen can be used to not only power vehicles on the road and in the air, but also propel vessels on the water and deep below the surface. So far, however, attempts to design a fuel cell vessel for travelling on rivers, lakes and oceans have been few and far between. Even though no such ship has made it onto the market yet, it’s not as if the maritime industry cannot point to many years of developing alternative systems.
The first-ever German fuel cell boat was the Hydra designed by Christian Machens and his former company etaing. It has an alkaline fuel cell, which – as Heinz J. Sturm reports – is still functioning. Sturm took over etaing and the ship back in 1999/2000 and uses the fuel cell unit in educational programs at the Climate Technology Center Bonn, Germany.
From small boat to large cruiser
Another attempt to utilize fuel cells in maritime applications was undertaken by Walter Pelka, who constructed a small wooden boat powered by hydrogen. He received a special f-cell award for his H2Yacht 540 in 2005.
The Alsterwasser launched in Hamburg in August 2008 as part of the Zero Emission Ships project also attracted much interest (see the April 2006, October 2008 and January 2015 issues of German-language magazine HZwei). This fuel cell ship could transport up to 100 passengers across the Alster river. The line was shut down in the fall of 2013 because there was no longer a refueling site available. And then there was the ASV Roboat, an autonomously navigating sailboat equipped with a solar system and a fuel cell to extend its range.
In the summer of 2009, e4ships, the third showcase project of the National Innovation Program Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology, breathed new life into the industry at its launch on the AIDAluna (see the October 2009 and October 2014 issues of HZwei and the March 2017 issue of H2-international). It promoted R&D work on yachts and cruisers, although in the beginning it focused on onboard energy supply.
Energy transformation put into practice
The most recent example from Germany is the MS Innogy, a steamship used for day trips and powered by a methanol fuel cell. It was developed during a project called greenfuel, which was launched by the innogy energy utility in late 2016 and involved the purchase and conversion of the MS Inselstadt Ratzeburg passenger ship previously running on Lake Baldeney in Essen, Germany. Instead of diesel, the ship now uses methanol for testing the viability of this alternative fuel.
The methanol is produced carbon-neutrally through renewables by first extracting carbon dioxide from the ambient air at the regional hydroelectric power plant. The CO2 is subsequently combined with water and renewably generated power to form methanol. The electric propulsion system will only release as much carbon dioxide during operation as has been extracted for production. The EUR 2 million project was partly funded by innogy SE and Europe’s “Green Capital,” Essen.
Since July 2017, there has been a container at Baldeney dam for the carbon-neutral production of 5 liters of methanol per day from water, eco-power and air. Since this isn’t enough to power the ship – 150 liters will only last 4 hours – renewable fuel is additionally imported from Iceland.
“Carbon-neutral maritime propulsion that won’t do any more harm to our environment is not some dream for the future, but energy transformation put into practice.”
Frank-Detlef Drake, head of strategy and R&D at innogy
Fuel cell ferry on the Erdre
A smaller-size version is the Jules Verne 2 ferry. It is 10 meters or 33 feet long and 3.8 meters or 12.5 feet wide and was launched into water in June during the Hydrogen Days in Nantes, France. It later started making regular runs on the Erdre river, permanently replacing the 20-year-old La Mouette (“Seagull”). The H2 riverboat was developed as part of the 5-year NavHybus project in France and is equipped with two Symbio FCell fuel cells. The fuel cell supplier’s co-founder, Pierre-Yves Le Berre, explained: “The most crucial advantage is the ferry’s lack of carbon dioxide emissions.” It also provided more flexibility by offering one week in full operation instead of half an hour and comparatively quick recharges. “Another practical feature is the use of process heat for the fuel cell to achieve comfortable cabin temperatures,” Le Berre said.
Considering the above, the Energy Observer (see p. 38) is just one of many very special marine vessels, although it may be the most impressive ship in the fuel cell category to date.
Six submarines in service
Fuel cells aren’t only used on the surface, but also deep below. In the fall of 2016, the German military received the last of six submarines type U212-A. Numbered U36 and measuring 57 meters or 187 feet in length, it was brought into service at the naval port in Eckernförde, 12 years after the U31 (see January 2007 issue of HZwei). The six vessels, worth EUR 2.6 billion in total, are non-nuclear versions manufactured by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, formerly Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft or HDW, and possess a hybrid propulsion system that combines a diesel generator and a fuel cell. Large H2 metal hydride storage ensures that the submarine can be deployed for several weeks and mostly independent of any outside air supply.