By: Scott Way
Last week, we discovered that Yamaha and Toyota were in cahoots to develop a V8 hydrogen engine. It's being tested in automobiles right now, but its destined for a transom in the near future. After a little more digging, we learned Toyota is already working on the next step, having launched the Toyota Energy Observer, an energy-autonomous hydrogen-powered catamaran that's in the midst circumnavigating the globe. Pandora's Box is open to an incoming surge of hydrogen-based marine technology.
This week, four of the world's largest yacht builders announced they are developing hydrogen fuel cells for powering large scale marine vessels. Those names include Lürssen, who have built several of the world's largest and most complex superyachts, as well as Baglietto, Tankoa. and the world-renowned Feadship. That's quite a list.
But it gets better.
The hydrogen hysteria is getting creative. Companies who aren't on the level of mega-corporations like Feadship are refitting existing superyachts to test the capabilities of hydrogen power. The most eye-opening example comes courtesy of deceased former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who's repo'd Sunseeker Predator 95 is now in the hands of Norwegian shipbuilder Green Yacht, who are converting it to a zero-emission hydrogen-powered examplar under the moniker Hydrogen Viking. That's quite a name.
Redefining the yacht industry by rapidly and radically adopting a new propulsion system, which is not inexpensive, is a bold move. The first hydrogen yachts are expected to be ready as early as 2024. If they are within striking distance of the power and range offered by diesel-electric engines, they may signal the resolute transition towards alternative power. If superyachts can do it, surely the smaller boats won't be far behind.
“Someone has to be the pioneer,” said Michael Breman, sales director at Lürssen Yachts, to Robb Report. Lürssen is already constructing a hydrogen superyacht, but are keeping the details close to the chest. According to Breman, the owner is remaining anonymous but believes that hydrogen is the future. “He’s smart about it. He didn’t jump in without taking stock of everything,” he added.
To be sure, there are hurdles to overcome before hydrogen becomes the primary power source on a boat. The most pressing is that hydrogen power is drastically behind diesel and electric motors in terms of output and efficiency. Existing hydrogen tech can power secondary systems, or provide interior power while at rest, but cannot power the engines that drive the boat in any meaningful capacity. The closest example of 100% hydrogen power that could be applied to recreational boating is the hydrogen-powered Toyota Corolla that recently ran the Fuji 24 Hours endurance race. It finished the race, but it can't compete with its gas-powered competitors. It ran a 1.5 L 3-cylinder engine. Perhaps enough for a small runabout, but that's about it. For now.
The other major issue is that hydrogen is extremely flammable in both liquid and gaseous forms, which means keeping it onboard requires specialty tanks that use a huge portion of a boat's interior space. Boaters are sticklers about storage, so a boat comprised entirely of fuel tanks and battery banks (which are full of hazardous materials) isn't particularly appealing. There won't be enough room for a cuddy cabin, head, or under-floor storage.
The third issue amounts to infrastructure. Diesel fuel is available everywhere. In terms of electric power, the industry is starting to make headway with electric charging stations for recreational boaters, but it's literally just begun. Hydrogen is not available at any marina, dock, or shipyard, and it's not easy to come by. Current prototypes like the Toyota Energy Observer convert seawater to hydrogen power using a complicated network of solar panels, wind turbines, and interior systems, but that's not a realistic (or aesthetically pleasing) option for a billionaire's superyacht. It is certainly not realistic on a smaller recreational boat.
To bypass some of these limitations, Lürssen is using methanol as their fuel source. It reduces some of the technical complexity while also using less storage space because methanol can be stored in conventional tanks, rather than in oversized specialty hydrogen tanks. Burning methanol produces less CO2 than burning diesel, and methanol can be converted without producing harmful emissions. With regards to fuel cells, hydrogen is converted into electricity and then stored onboard inside lithium-ion battery packs. That electricity is capable of powering electric engines and secondary systems, and will run as long as there's a continuous feed of hydrogen into the cell.
While hydrogen fuel cells can't propel a boat, at least not to the degree of a diesel engine, they can run other critical components like onboard electricity and air conditioning. According to Robb Report, the existing Lürssen prototype can power a ship's systems for 15 days or 1,000 miles. The other advantage is that the system is silent and doesn't produce vibration because there are no moving parts, so at least users can enjoy a quieter and smoother ride.
Italian shipbuilder Baglietto is also expected to have a fuel cell prototype unveiled by 2024. It's not small, the minimum size requirements are yachts 171 feet or longer, but the upside is that large yachts can spend weeks at sea without having to dock to resupply or refuel. The Baglietto system is also expected to draw enough power to propel the yacht at 6 to 9 knots. “One of our big goals is to extend the range in zero-emissions mode,” Alessandro Balzi, director of Baglietto’s energy department, told Rob Report. “It allows a yacht into areas where diesel propulsion is prohibited.”
While there is progress being made, 100% hydrogen powered yachts are still years away. In the meantime, hydrogen power will become more popular for running auxiliary systems, and to a lesser degree, providing small-scale propulsion. As with all things, a combined effort is needed to develop the primary technology alongside the infrastructure (like fuel availability and refilling stations) that will make it attractive against the status quo.
Tankoa CEO Vinceno Peorio told Robb Report, “Clean energy is not yet there for the main engines. We’ll see multiple systems coming together to feed our need for clean energy—possibly even nuclear-fusion power. Owners are asking for yacht designs now that can be swapped out as those systems mature over the next 10 years.”
The next decade will be interesting.