If you’re like most people, you’ve got a fair share of packages, even groceries, delivered. During the pandemic, you probably ordered even more from Amazon or physical companies. E-commerce has grown by more than 40% in 2020.
Many of these items are shipped from warehouses, which use forklifts. Plug Power in Latham, NY, supplies hydrogen fuel cells for warehouse forklifts. Amazon and Walmart are two of its biggest customers. According to a report, in ordinary times, forklifts equipped with Plug Power fuel cells help move a quarter of the food and groceries purchased nationwide; in the first months of the pandemic, that figure rose to nearly a third, and Walmart ordered more Plug Power fuel cell systems
because the demand on its warehouses has increased by 30 percent more than even during the peak holiday season.
The shipping industry is poised to become another avid customer of hydrogen fuel cell systems, which increasingly power not only warehouse forklifts, but everything from automobiles to ferries. Just as these industries view technology as cleaner and greener, so too is the yachting industry. Based on the current activity among early adopters, we should see the first yachts with hydrogen fuel cells in the next few years.
Simply put, a fuel cell generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction, as opposed to combustion. This reaction most often involves hydrogen and oxygen. In addition, there are no moving parts, so fuel cells are quiet and offer high reliability. They are also scalable, to create larger systems. With pure hydrogen “fuel”, the only by-products are electricity, heat and water.
While many people consider fuel cells to be modern wonders, Welsh scientist William Robert Grove is widely credited with creating the first fuel cell – what he called a gas battery – in 1838. Around 50 years later, the German shipyard in Lürssen produced the world’s first motorboat (a 20-footer commissioned by Gottlieb Daimler, the inventor and manufacturer of the motor). Today, Lürssen is building the world’s first large superyacht equipped with fuel cells. The shipyard has a technology-loving customer who, when the project is delivered in 2025, will be able to spend 15 nights at anchor, and cover 1,000 miles at low speed without emissions.
“We introduced the customer to the fact that we were looking for fuel cell technology, and we suggested that it would be a good addition to their project,” says Michael Breman, sales manager for the shipyard.
Lürssen has been involved in fuel cell research projects on board commercial vessels since 2005. Since 2009, he has participated in a government sponsored research project for fuel cells powering passenger ships. “We don’t just want to use the latest technology on our yachts, we want to advance the status quo,” says Peter Lürssen, Managing Partner. “And to make a difference, you have to be active. ”
To ensure that the fuel cells work properly, Lürssen is simulating the system in an on-site laboratory this summer, with the help of another German company, the world leader in maritime fuel cells Freudenberg. The system will operate under actual ambient conditions with all auxiliary systems. It will use hydrogen continuously reformed from methanol.
Lürssen and its fuel cell partner chose methanol over elemental hydrogen due to its wide availability worldwide and easier handling methods. In addition, according to the site, methanol is climate neutral when renewable sources such as carbon dioxide are involved in its production. Storage tanks can be low structural tanks in the double bottom of a yacht, eliminating the problem of elemental hydrogen having to be pressurized or liquefied, requiring larger tanks and associated structures.
Another active shipyard in this space is Daedalus Yachts. Based in Edenton, North Carolina, he built an 88-foot carbon composite sailing catamaran. This yacht will produce hydrogen on board from seawater. The D88 should be able to sail at 10 knots for about four days on hydrogen and on battery power. When the batteries run out, the power of the sail will take over, along with the solar panels and electric motors acting as generators (the motors are attached to the propellers, which will turn from the passing water). Together, the three inputs should recharge the batteries in about four hours. Then the regeneration of the hydrogen can begin.
Daedalus co-founder Michael Reardon said the hydrogen production unit is similar to those used in aerospace and nuclear submarines, “in heavy use for 35 years.” Even with this story, however, some trial and error has occurred. Initially, Daedalus intended to use tanks from contractors, but some left hydrogen leaks and none were certified for marine use. “Fire protection for the navy is very different than on the road,” says Reardon.
The solution: The D88 features carbon fiber tanks that Daedalus developed with a company in the same family behind Coors Brewing Company. The tanks are certified by the American Bureau of Shipping and DNV in Norway, as well as the US Department of Transportation. Reardon says the tanks have also been adapted by NASA, SpaceX and Blue Origin for their needs, and that the shipyard is using them in conjunction with quadruple redundancies and regulator pressure valves.
Daedalus Yachts plans to exhibit the D88 at the Monaco Yacht Show in 2023. “Three years ago, when we started designing and engineering the boat, we were radical,” says Reardon. Now, “80% of our requests come from Europe. Daedalus already has a 111-foot model in development, as well as requests for yachts from 60 to 80 feet in overall length. “Initially, requests were addressed to us in order to be greener and cleaner,” he says. “The first question is always: how green are we and how is energy produced? Then it’s security.
Breman says the yacht industry has been slower than other industries to adopt the technology because the technology had to prove its endurance in operation, simultaneously with reduced maintenance. There were also storage capacity issues for hydrogen. “With a practical solution now available for all of these problems, we are able to provide the most environmentally friendly propulsion system on our yacht,” he says.
And, says Breman, “The yachting industry is a niche market, and to implement new technology you need a mass market to make the new product commercially affordable.” Affordability is less of an issue for a custom shipyard like Lürssen and for a builder like Daedalus – whose client, Stefan Muff, the creator of the technology behind Google Maps, also became the shipyard’s co-founder.
Reardon sees the possibilities materialize in production yachts over the next five to ten years. Some engine manufacturers are already preparing. Earlier this year,
Yanmar carried out a field test of a system developed with Toyota, using two modules of the Toyota Mirai 2021, a fuel cell vehicle. The fuel cell modules used in the test, aboard a 41-footer, produced 250 kW, which is roughly equivalent to 335 hp.
“The next planned step is a feasibility study and a full system assessment to determine commercial potential,” says Jessica Stewart, Americas operations manager for Yanmar. The parent company of the marine division, Yanmar Holdings Co., issued a statement saying it is “dedicated to the continued development of sustainable technologies.”
The technology for pushing a yacht across water is very different from that of a fuel cell forklift. But perhaps in the not-too-distant future, fuel cell ships will displace a quarter of cruising enthusiasts in the United States.
This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue.