Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time in Starnberg, Germany, in the company of Christoph Ballin, one of the two highly innovative guys who, back in 2004, founded Torqeedo, arguably the most recognizable brand in marinized-electric propulsion in the world today. Ballin was conducting a tour of the Torqeedo production facility, a rather techie place he was justifiably proud of. Just for the heck of it, in the midst of the tour, I decided to ask him about the feasibility of hydrogen-powered (as opposed to battery-powered) boats, to see what he thought of the idea. I was blown away by the response I got.
“You know, hydrogen, which has a very, very high energy density, is the final step—the fuel of the future,” he said, adding that electromobility, the technology directly responsible for Torqeedo’s world-wide popularity at the time, was simply a “bridge” to the ultimate goal: a robust and all-encompassing hydrogen-driven economy.
Although Ballin’s point of view seemed quite radical back then, coming as it did from one of the major players in the electromobility field, he certainly didn’t seem like the type to be throwing around wild and crazy pronouncements. Besides having a solid and heartfelt commitment to putting the brakes on climate change, he’d enjoyed a long and successful career as a mainstream business economist and McKinsey & Company consultant prior to founding Torqeedo. So, I figured he was coming at the hydrogen-power issue, not from an intuitive or emotional angle, but from the perspective of a person with in-depth knowledge of global markets and trends.
Fast forward to the present day and hey, it appears that Emirates Team New Zealand, four-time winner of the America’s Cup, is hellbent on charging into the future that Ballin envisiond during our tour. Indeed, at press time, Emirates mechatronics engineer Michael Rasmussen and his team of New Zealand-based boatbuilders, mechanics, technicians and electro-chemical savants were scheduling a set of mid-March sea trials on one of the most sophisticated, forward-leaning hydrogen-powered vessels ever built: a 33-foot, six-passenger, America’s Cup foiling chase boat with a projected top speed of 50 knots, a cruising speed of 35 knots and a cruising range of approximately 112 nautical miles.
Certainly, the project’s well-publicized these days. And, of course, it gets much of its lofty, near-nose-bleed profile from the Emirates imprimatur—but a host of big-league supporters, all of them well-versed in the intricacies of hydrogen-propulsion, is on board as well. Toyota Motor Corporation Japan, for example, is ponying up two 80-kW, pre-production modular hydrogen fuel cells. Gurit, known around the world for lightweight, performance-improving composites, is contributing structural engineering expertise and materials to produce a wafty, speed-boosting 11,464-pound displacement. Mercury Marine is supplying the vessel’s propellers, which are linked to electric motors at the bottoms of the foils. And Global Bus Ventures, a lesser-known enterprise perhaps but responsible for the first zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered buses to hit New Zealand’s streets, is designing and integrating the hydrogen powertrain.
When she’s actually launched and vetted, the prototype will be, according to Team Emirates’ engineers, more Back to the Future than any other foiling powerboat on the marine scene. She’ll have four hydrogen-storage tanks belowdecks, built by Norway’s Hexagon Purus, a 21-year-old company that bills itself as a global leader in “zero-emissions mobility” for trucks and cars and as well as marine applications. Each lightweight, unrefrigerated composite tank will contain about 73 pounds of hydrogen at the extremely high pressure of approximately 5,100 pounds per square inch. The vessel’s Toyota fuel cells will offer “enhanced performance,” thanks to second-generation Mirai, automotive-type technology with components that factor air supply, hydrogen supply, cooling and power control into a single, relatively small module. The three 400-volt DC electric, prop-spinning motors will generate slightly less than 600 hp at top end. And an autopilot, based on proprietary technology the Kiwis developed via considerable experience with foiling America’s Cup race boats over the years, will control the H2-powered foiler’s orientation to and height above the water while underway.
Fueling the prototype, interestingly enough, will have something of an old-school quality, at least for starters. Because Emirates will not be producing its own hydrogen at the current stage of the game, a commercial supplier will simply hook up a hose to a special fill apparatus on the boat and pump the product aboard, very much like how a person tops off the fuel tank of an automobile. Ideally, only so-called “green hydrogen” will be used, a product that is manufactured using renewables like solar, wind and other high-tech energies.
“But keep in mind that this is a prototype we are building here,” says Rasmussen, “and there is still plenty of work to do to complete the whole overall picture. But the objective is to stick with fuel sourced from green hydrogen suppliers only.”
Let’s face it: Should Team Emirates’ hydrogen-powered, foiling chase boat turn out to be a raging success—and it’s very likely that it will—the development may have serious implications for other America’s Cup contestants as well as the Kiwis. There’s already talk amongst the Cup’s movers and shakers of mandating H2 power for all support vessels involved in the event, a move that could push the concept of hydrogen-powered propulsion well beyond the confines of high-profile sailboat racing.
“It’s my belief that the move into hydrogen boats by Emirates Team New Zealand will set the scene for motor-driven craft as we did in starting the marine foiling revolution,” says Sir Stephen Tindall, a New Zealand businessman, philanthropist and major backer of the project. “I am looking forward to seeing millions of hydrogen-driven vehicles and boats over the next 20 years.”