When it’s built, it will be the first passenger ferry in the U.S. powered purely by hydrogen fuel cells, a zero-emissions technology whose only byproduct is water. 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.
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 so widespread. 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 California.
But no one had looked at whether the same technology could power boats, too.
Escher took his idea to Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, where Joe Pratt, a mechanical engineer at the national defense lab, helped lead a feasibility study to see if such a vessel could 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 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 when it was built, it could immediately be put to use in the maritime industry. And Monday, Pratt’s newly formed company, Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, announced it had won a $3 million grant.
“Tom and I had always said, ‘We’ve got to build this boat,’” Pratt said. When the air resources board announced last year that it was soliciting proposals for a zero-emissions ferry, Pratt said, “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. The 70-foot aluminum catamaran, designed by the Australian-based Incat Crowther company, will have a top speed of about 25 mph, Pratt said.
No dockside 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. 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. 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.
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.
Construction will begin this summer or in early fall, with an expected completion date toward the end of next year.