If you’re like most people, you have a fair share of packages, even groceries, delivered. During the pandemic, you probably ordered even more from the likes of Amazon or brick-and-mortar businesses. E-commerce soared upwards of 40 percent in 2020.
Many of those items are sent from warehouses, which use forklifts. Plug Power in Latham, N.Y., supplies hydrogen fuel cells for warehouse forklifts. Amazon and Walmart are two of its biggest customers. According to one report, in ordinary times, forklifts with Plug Power fuel cells help to move a quarter of the food and groceries purchased nationwide; during the first few months of the pandemic, that figure grew to nearly one-third, and Walmart ordered more Plug Power fuel-cell systems
because demand on its warehouses rose 30 percent higher than even during the peak holiday season.
The marine industry is poised to become another eager customer for hydrogen fuel-cell systems, which are increasingly powering not just warehouse forklifts, but everything from automobiles to ferries. Just as those industries are eyeing the technology for being cleaner and greener, so too is the yachting industry. Based on current activity among early adopters, we should see the first yachts with hydrogen fuel cells in the next few years.
In simple terms, a fuel cell generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction, versus combustion. That reaction most often involves hydrogen and oxygen. Additionally, there are no moving parts, so fuel cells are quiet and offer high reliability. They’re scalable too, for creating larger systems. With pure hydrogen “fuel,” the only by-products are electricity, heat and water.
While many people think of fuel cells as modern marvels, Welsh scientist William Robert Grove is largely credited with creating the first fuel cell — what he called a gas battery — in 1838. About 50 years after that, the Germany-based Lürssen shipyard produced the world’s first motorboat (a 20-footer commissioned by Gottlieb Daimler, the engine inventor and manufacturer). Today, Lürssen is building the world’s first large superyacht with fuel cells. The yard has a technology-loving customer who, upon project delivery in 2025, will be able to spend 15 nights at anchor, plus cover 1,000 miles at low speed emission-free.
“We introduced to the client the fact that we are researching fuel-cell technology, and we suggested to him that it would be a good addition to his project,” says Michael Breman, the shipyard’s sales director.
Lürssen has been participating in fuel-cell research projects aboard commercial ships since 2005. Since 2009, it’s been participating in a government-sponsored research project for fuel cells powering passenger vessels. “We don’t just want to use the latest technology on our yachts — we want to advance the status quo,” says managing partner Peter Lürssen. “And in order to change things, you have to be active.”
To ensure that the fuel cells will work properly, Lürssen is simulating the system in an on-site laboratory this summer, with the assistance of a fellow German company, global maritime fuel-cell leader Freudenberg. The system will operate under real-life ambient conditions with all auxiliary systems. It will use hydrogen continuously reformed from methanol.
Lürssen and its fuel-cell partner chose methanol instead of elemental hydrogen because of its broad global availability and easier handling methods. Additionally, the yard says, methanol is climate neutral when renewable sources like carbon dioxide are involved in its production. The stowage tanks can be structural tanks low in a yacht’s double bottom, eliminating the problem of elemental hydrogen needing to be pressurized or liquefied, which requires larger tanks and related structures.
Another shipyard active in this space is Daedalus Yachts. Based in Edenton, N.C., it has a carbon composite 88-foot sailing catamaran in build. That yacht will generate hydrogen on board from seawater. The D88 should be able to cruise at 10 knots for about four days on hydrogen and battery power. When the batteries deplete, sail power will take over, along with solar panels and electric motors acting as generators (the motors are attached to the props, which will rotate from the passing water). Together, the three inputs should recharge the batteries in about four hours. Then, hydrogen regeneration can begin.
Daedalus co-founder Michael Reardon says the hydrogen-generating unit is similar to ones used in aerospace and nuclear subs, “in robust use for 35 years.” Even with that history, though, trial and error occurred. Initially, Daedalus intended to use tanks from subcontractors, but some allowed hydrogen to leak, and none were certified for marine use. “Fire protection for marine is quite different than over the road,” Reardon says.
The solution: The D88 has carbon fiber tanks that Daedalus developed with a company owned by the same family behind Coors Brewing Company. The tanks are certified by the American Bureau of Shipping and by DNV in Norway, as well as by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Reardon says the tanks also have 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 expects to display the D88 at the Monaco Yacht Show in 2023. “Three years ago, when we started the design and engineering for the boat, we were radical,” Reardon says. Now, “80 percent of our inquiries are from Europe.” Daedalus already has a 111-foot model in development, plus requests for yachts from 60 to 80 feet length overall. “Initially the inquiries were coming to us in an effort to be greener and cleaner,” he says. “The first question is always, How green are we, and how is the energy made? Then it’s safety.”
Breman says the yacht industry has been slower than other industries to embrace the technology because the tech needed to prove its endurance in operation, simultaneously with reduced maintenance. There were also storage-capacity concerns for hydrogen. “With a convenient solution now available for all these issues, we are able to provide the most environmental-friendly propulsion system on our yacht,” he says.
And, Breman says, “The yachting industry is a niche market, and to implement a 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 trickling down into production yachts within the next five to 10 years. Some engine manufacturers are already preparing. Earlier this year,
Yanmar conducted a field test of a system developed with Toyota, employing two modules from the 2021 Toyota Mirai, a fuel-cell-powered vehicle. The fuel cell modules used in the test, aboard a 41-footer, produced 250 kW, which is approximately the same as 335 hp.
“The next step planned is a feasibility study and full system evaluation to determine the commercial potential,” says Jessica Stewart, the Americas operations manager for Yanmar. The marine division’s parent company, Yanmar Holdings Co., issued a statement indicating that it is “dedicated to the continual development of sustainable technologies.”
The technology to push a yacht through the water is a lot different than a fuel-cell-powered forklift. But perhaps in the not-too-distant future, fuel-cell-powered boats will move one-quarter of cruising enthusiasts stateside.
This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue.