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Hit the Gas

While the car industry is significantly ahead in terms of utilizing hydrogen-power, boatbuilders aren't too far behind.

When it comes to technological breakthroughs, movies tend to be poor predictors. Case in point: 1985’s Back to the Future and its treasure trove of sci-fi staples like flying cars and time travel. I was intrigued by Doc’s Mr. Fusion Energy Reactor, the device shoehorned into his DeLorean’s engine bay after he returned from 30 years in the future. As you may recall, Doc opens the top on Mr. Fusion and feeds in eggshells, banana peels and a few precious ounces of Miller High Life to giddy-up his stainless-steel steed into the time-space continuum. Well, 2015 came and went and there’s no Mr. Fusion, flying cars or, as far as I know, time travel.


However, we’ve come a long way in reducing fossil fuel consumption—millions of hybrid and fully electric vehicles now ply our nation’s roads. In the marine space, the aforementioned means of propulsion are coming along at a slower pace. Some, like the UK’s Cheetah Marine, are looking to hydrogen-powered fuel cells as a feasible marine power source. And Torqeedo founder, Dr. Christoph Ballin, arguably the world’s leader in electric marine propulsion, views hydrogen as an effective energy source to work in concert with electric power.

Consider the fuel cell, a Mr. Fusion of these times. It produces energy via an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen—the elements combine to produce heat and energy (electricity); water is its byproduct. I was surprised to learn that Honda, Hyandai and Toyota offer hydrogen-powered fuel-cell models in the U.S., with nearly all sold in southern California where there’s a network of hydrogen fill stations. “The car industry is significantly ahead because of the potentially large market and the ability to mass produce ... [We] can learn from that and develop accordingly,” Cheetah Marine founder Sean Strevens told me.

Dr. Christoph Ballin

Dr. Christoph Ballin

The roadblocks to mainstream hydrogen power are similar to those of electric power, with perhaps more challenges, most notably cost and infrastructure. Today, about 95 percent of hydrogen is made via steam reforming, requiring vast amounts of energy produced by fossil fuels. And unlike an electrified system—shore power is available at nearly every marina—fueling up with hydrogen at the dock is currently nonexistent. “Hydrogen will need to be readily available, and [its] production will need to be made using renewable energy sources,” Ballin said, for it to be a feasible option. And fuel cell components are pricey: The cars mentioned above show similar range numbers to their hybrid counterparts but are more than double the sticker price. But topping off the tanks takes minutes as opposed to the hours spent recharging electric -batteries.

Both Strevens and Ballin see a big upside in hydrogen power. “Hydrogen has a very high energy density, so using a fuel cell to charge batteries means the range limitations of electric mobility can be overcome while becoming carbon-neutral,” Ballin said. Strevens believes fuel cells will be a key factor in increasing speed and range—they see its potential in vessels that have a specific route, such as supply boats and ferries. In these instances, it’s part of the puzzle to climate-neutral mobility as a complement to electric power, particularly useful for long-distance vessels such as oceangoing commercial craft or passagemakers. In tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, fuel cells have shown to be durable over long periods and scalable, capable of powering everything from a laptop to a power station.

For hydrogen to be considered a game-changer by green energy acolytes, its generation needs to come from a sustainable energy source. “One of the most practical strategies for climate-neutral mobility is to make electricity renewable, then electrify everything,” Ballin told me, with hydrogen (and solar and wind) serving as primary or charging sources. I don’t need a Plutonium-powered DeLorean to tell you that the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered; I do know that technology will determine what ultimately replaces it.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.