Sandia spokeswoman Jules Bernstein said a new report shows it is technically and economically feasible to build a vessel powered by hydrogen fuel cells with zero-emissions technology that won’t contaminate air or water samples collected in sensitive ecological areas.
The study, funded by the federal Department of Transportation’s maritime administration, involved a hydrogen-powered research vessel nicknamed “Zero-V,” short for zero-emissions research vessel.
Bernstein said hydrogen fuel cells have existed for decades, and there are multiple advantages to using them instead of diesel engines to power research ships. With zero emissions, they won’t contaminate air or water samples collected in sensitive ecological areas. They make almost no noise, so they won’t upset marine life or interfere with the many sensors scientists use to listen to sound in the ocean.
The study, led by Sandia, brought together the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the UC San Diego, naval architecture firm Glosten and DNV GL, a global quality assurance and risk management company working for the maritime industry.
Klebanoff, a Sandia chemist and project lead, said it is impossible to have a polluting hydrogen spill on the water. More buoyant than helium, hydrogen rises on its own and eventually escapes into outer space.
“If you’re working in a sensitive ecological area and you spill liquid hydrogen there, the fuel not only removes itself from this environment, it removes itself from the planet,” Klebanoff said.
He explained that fuel cells even generate water so pure that the ship’s crew can drink it (with conditioning), or use it for scientific experiments, reducing the need to desalinate seawater (which currently consumes large amounts of energy). Also, fuel cells are electrical devices, and as such, they offer a faster power response than internal combustion engines.
Bernstein said Sandia’s expertise in this area stems from a portfolio of hydrogen projects that aim to develop efficient transportation solutions with clean domestic fuels. Its role was to lead the project, choose the kind of fuel cell to use, the method of storing the hydrogen and provide information on the safety-related properties of hydrogen.
The Zero-V project evolved from earlier Sandia work on the SF-BREEZE, a hydrogen-powered passenger ferry designed to operate in the San Francisco Bay.
Pratt, who led the SF-BREEZE project for Sandia, said small hydrogen-powered pleasure crafts made for very short distances already exist. But prior to the SF-BREEZE, there hadn’t been a project that looked at the technical as well as economic feasibility of powering large, fast commercial boats with hydrogen.
“Until we did the SF-BREEZE, very few people thought you could power a real ship, a business venture, on hydrogen fuel cell power,” Pratt said. “In addition to proving it was technically possible, we had to show that it would pencil out economically, so that it would have a chance of going out into the marketplace.”
Bernstein said while the SF-BREEZE required refueling after 100 miles, the Zero-V can go at least 2,400 miles. In addition, the Sandia team found an innovative approach that allows liquid hydrogen suppliers to drive fuel trucks directly to the ship at ports of call.
Klebanoff added: “A research vessel is different from a passenger ferry, instead of going fast for short periods and carrying a lot of people, the research vessel goes slower for much longer distances, carries fewer people and must allow the operation of sensitive scientific instrumentation.”
He said that means that the hydrogen-powered Zero-V could complete tasks that are routine for ocean-going research missions, such as marine ecosystem studies, physical oceanography, tsunami risk and ocean chemistry research.
Mapping or installing equipment on the ocean floor requires a vessel to be stable over a single point for long periods, even if there is wind or waves.
In his statement, Bernstein said Sandia’s partner Glosten determined that the aid of propulsion devices installed in each side hull would enable the Zero-V to maintain its position with more than 25 knots of wind and waves from any direction.
In addition, Glosten is working on a way for Zero-V to store heavy hydrogen tanks while accommodating at least 18 scientists, 11 crew members and three laboratories on the vessel.
With a solid design in place, the next step will be to find the funding to build it.
Bernstein said a vessel powered by hydrogen fuel cells could significantly advance U.S. marine transportation technology