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It's Time to Let Bananas Onboard

Forget boating superstitions, bananas are coming onboard... as hydrogen power

Bananas have long been the forbidden fruit of boating -- an outlawed snack that, despite being a healthy treat, are considered a deadly hazard.

By the early 1700's, it seems merchant ships had become wary of bananas because of their frustrating ability to spoil cargo. You see, bananas release ethylene gas as they ripen, which in turn speeds up the ripening of everything around them.

Have you ever left bananas on your countertop close to other fruits or vegetables, only to notice everything seems to spoil quicker than usual? That's the bananas doing their thing. Now imagine that happening inside a ship's cargo hold alongside thousands of pounds of other perishable food. By the time merchant ships pulled into port, they were often left with a rotten pile of produce and no buyers.

To combat the banana and its problematic emissions, ships began trying to outrun the ripening. Sometimes that led to a ship taking an unnecessary risk with an oncoming storm, and sometimes that led to a trip to Davy Jones' locker. The banana quickly became taboo.

There's also the small matter of ethylene gas being highly flammable. While there is no definitive historical account of a ship exploding due to banana gas, it undoubtedly happened. When you consider the unlikely prioritization of health and safety at a pirate-infested harbour in the 1700's, fruits and vegetables probably weren't under much scrutiny. The combination of an explosive urban legend with the wary temperament of sailors was the perfect recipe for a new superstition.

That's not to say that there aren't other historical examples of banana bombs. On December 17th, 1936, the Pittsburgh Banana Company building literally exploded, raining bananas across an entire industrial block. A spark from an exhaust fan ignited the ethylene gas in the company's 'ripening room,' blowing the bananas sky high. It happened again in the U.K. in 1954.

So, at this point you must be wondering, how does this all relate to boating?

Well, it turns out that the volatile banana is also great for producing hydrogen, which is becoming the de facto fuel source for 'alternative power' in the marine industry.

hydrogen engine Toyota and Yamaha
The 5.8L V8 hydrogen engine designed by Toyota and Yamaha

So much so, in fact, that we've already covered stories about engine manufacturers like Toyota and Yamaha developing hydrogen engines for use in boats. That particular union resulted in a 5.8L V8 engine that runs 100% on hydrogen and delivers 450 hp at 6800 RPM and 540 Nm of torque at 3600 RPM. Another variation was put inside a Toyota Corolla to run the Fuji 24 Hour endurance race, which it completed without producing a single emission.

Those performance figures also happen to be a perfect match for boats. For example, the 27' Cobalt R8 uses a 6.2L Volvo Penta V8 sterndrive engine with 430 horsepower. If they can put a hydrogen engine in a Corolla, they can put one in a Cobalt.

It's already happening in bigger boats, too. Renowned yacht builder Sunseeker is currently building a Predator 95 powered entirely with hydrogen using custom designed fuel cells. It's name? Hydrogen Viking. Consider them committed to the cause.

hydrogen powered Toyota Corolla
The hydrogen powered Corolla running the Fuji 24 endurance race

So, how do bananas factor into all of this?

In early 2022, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology announced a new method for burning banana peels to convert them into hydrogen. The method is efficient too, with one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of dried banana peel producing 100 litres of usable hydrogen fuel.

“Each kg of dried biomass can generate around 100 liters of hydrogen and 330g of biochar, which is up to 33% of the original dried banana peel mass,” said Bhawna Nagar, who worked on the study.

This means a few kilograms of biomass (i.e., banana peels) could theoretically power a marine V8 hydrogen engine with relative ease. Using biomass instead of gasoline or diesel is also lighter, cheaper, and produces no emissions.

It doesn't end with banana peels, either. According to the study, other sources like corn cobs, orange peels, coffee beans, and coconut shells can be used to produce hydrogen as well.

So, what's the rub? Well, to create hydrogen fuel the biomass has to be heated to between 400-800 degrees Celsius. Having that occurring on your transom during a storm might be enough to start a new superstition. There are kinks to be worked out.

In the meantime, boaters may want to start embracing the banana. A new era in power approaches. Dip your toe in by adding things like banana scented sunscreen to your boat, or perhaps banana flavoured drinks. Start small and work your way up.

That way, when you're shopping for your next boat you won't shudder at the idea of enjoying some banana bread on the foredeck. #culture

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