(TNS) — It’s called the “Water-Go-Round.”
When it’s built, it will be the first passenger ferry in the United States powered purely from hydrogen fuel cells, a zero-emissions technology whose only byproduct is water. And, if it’s successful, the demonstration project could open a wide range of applications for hydrogen fuel-cell technology in maritime uses, revolutionizing an industry that’s still largely guzzling fossil fuels.
“It’s very exciting,” said Tom Escher, president of Red and White Fleet, a family-run company operating in the San Francisco Bay since 1892.
Several years ago, Escher had a dream. He wanted to run his entire fleet of sightseeing and charter ferries with a zero-emissions fuel. Hydrogen fuel had been around for more than 50 years, but converting water to hydrogen is energy intensive and there had never been much incentive to build fueling infrastructure when diesel and gasoline stations were already so prolific. That is, until California began investing in that infrastructure, opening the first public hydrogen fueling station in 2015.
Now, there are nearly 5,000 hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles roaming the Golden State and 33 stations clustered largely in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, with outposts in Tahoe, Sacramento and the Central Valley.
But, no one had looked at whether the same technology could power boats, too.
So, Escher took his idea to Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, where Joe Pratt, a mechanical engineer at the national defense lab, helped lead a feasibility study to see if such a vessel could even be built. The lab secured a $500,000 grant to complete the study, and after a two-year quest involving nearly two dozen regulatory agencies and a dozen private companies, Pratt and his colleagues at Sandia had their answer: It was certainly possible, but costly.
The Sandia team secured a second, $250,000 grant to further refine the idea, bring down the cost and optimize the vessel so that when it was built, it could immediately be put to use in the maritime industry. And, on Monday, Pratt’s newly formed company, Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, announced it had won a $3 million grant from the California Air Resources Board that will administered through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to make Escher’s dream a reality.
“Tom and I had always said, ‘We’ve got to build this boat,’” Pratt said, reminiscing over the conversations he and Escher had as Pratt and his team were penciling the project. When the Air Resources Board announced last year it was soliciting proposals for a zero-emissions ferry, Pratt recalled, “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is our chance.’”
So, Pratt quit his job at Sandia to form Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine. When the ferry is built, Escher’s Red and White Fleet will operate it. The 70-foot aluminum catamaran, designed by the Australian-based Incat Crowther company, will have a top speed of 22 knots, Pratt said. And, it’ll be built right here, in Alameda, at Bay Ship & Yacht Co.
“We get to say this is a Bay Area product,” Pratt said. “I’m really excited about that, too.”
No dock-side fueling stations will be needed; Pratt said a hydrogen fueling truck will be able to drive onto the dock and refuel the boat straight from the truck. And, as the price of wholesale hydrogen fuel continues to drop while diesel prices climb, Pratt said it will only be a few years until hydrogen fuel is cheaper.
There’s also less maintenance with electric engines that run on hydrogen fuel cells, he said. Unlike complex diesel engines, the fuel cells are stacked liked computer servers in a server room. When one malfunctions, the ferry operator need only swap it out for a new one, Pratt said, rather than taking hours, days or weeks to diagnose and repair a diesel engine.
And, there’s really no limit to how big of a boat you can build that runs on hydrogen fuel, meaning the market possibilities are equally boundless, Pratt said.
Since diesel emissions from ships account for 10 percent of the Bay Area’s air pollution from mobile sources, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, this technology seemed especially promising, said Jack Broadbent, BAAQMD’s CEO.
“It’s a technology of the future,” he said in a statement.
Designs for the Water-Go-Round are nearly complete, Pratt said, and construction will begin later this summer or in early fall, with an expected completion date towards the end of next year. After that, Pratt said there will be a three-month demonstration and analysis period, where it’ll be tested at various speeds and for various uses.
Once the three-month trial is over, Pratt said he hopes the boat will find a happy home in the Bay Area, where it can serve as an educational resource for school groups and the public to learn about hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But, for Pratt, this ship will be only the beginning.
Ultimately, he’d like to start selling hydrogen fuel-cell engines that can be swapped out for diesel-powered ones in all kinds of ships, starting with passenger ferries and moving to tug boats and, eventually, larger vessels.
“We’ll see widespread adoption of this technology all around the world,” Pratt said. “There’s really no reason not to.”
©2018 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.