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High-Speed Hydrogen

America’s Cup syndicate Emirates Team New Zealand launches a foiling chase boat with cutting-edge propulsion
The design team chose hydrogen because of its high energy density. 

The design team chose hydrogen because of its high energy density. 

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to spend a fair amount of time in Starnberg, Germany, in the company of Christoph Ballin, one of the two innovative guys who in 2004 founded Torqeedo, arguably the most recognizable brand name in electric marine propulsion today. Ballin was conducting a tour of the Torqeedo production facility, a rather techy place he was justifiably proud of.

In the midst of the tour, I asked 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 his response. “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 worldwide 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 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 pronouncements. In addition to having a solid commitment to putting the brakes on climate change, he’d had a long and successful career as a mainstream business economist and McKinsey and Co. consultant prior to founding Torqeedo. So it seemed to me that he’d be approaching the hydrogen-power issue not from an intuitive or emotional angle, but from the perspective of someone with in-depth knowledge of global markets and trends.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s hydrogen-powered, foiling chase boat has a projected top speed of 50 knots.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s hydrogen-powered, foiling chase boat has a projected top speed of 50 knots.

Fast forward to the present day, and Emirates Team New Zealand, four-time winner of the America’s Cup, is charging into the future that Ballin envisioned. Emirates mechatronics engineer Michael Rasmussen and his team of New Zealand-based boatbuilders, mechanics, technicians and electro-chemical savants are scheduling sea trials on one of the most sophisticated, forward-leaning, hydrogen-powered vessels ever built: a 33-foot, six-passenger 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.

The project gets much of its high profile from the Emirates imprimatur, but a host of supporters, all of them well-versed in the intricacies of hydrogen-propulsion, are also in the mix. Toyota Motor Corp. Japan is ponying up two 80-kW, preproduction modular hydrogen fuel cells. Gurit, known around the world for lightweight, performance- improving composites, is contributing structural engineering expertise and materials to produce the boat’s speed-boosting 11,464-pound displacement. Mercury Marine is supplying the propellers, which are linked to electric motors at the bottoms of the foils. And Global Bus Ventures, a lesser-known enterprise responsible for the first zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered buses in New Zealand, is designing and integrating the hydrogen powertrain.

Once launched and vetted, the prototype will be, according to Team New Zealand engineers, more Back to the Future than any other foiling powerboat. She’ll have four hydrogen-storage tanks on board, 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, as well as marine applications.

Foiling technology has been used in America’s Cup sailboats since 2013.

Foiling technology has been used in America’s Cup sailboats since 2013.

Each lightweight, unrefrigerated composite tank will contain about 73 pounds of hydrogen at an extremely high pressure of approximately 5,100 pounds per square inch. The 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. Twin 400-volt DC electric, prop-spinning motors will generate slightly less than 600 hp at the top end. And an autopilot, based on proprietary technology the Kiwis developed with their considerable experience with foiling America’s Cup raceboats, will control the hydrogen foiler’s orientation to and height above the water while underway.

Fueling the prototype will have something of an old-school quality, at least for starters. Because Team New Zealand will not be producing its own hydrogen at the current stage of the game, a commercial supplier will hook up a hose to a special fill apparatus on the boat and pump the fuel aboard, like topping off the fuel tank of an automobile. Ideally, only so-called “green hydrogen” will be used, which is manufactured using renewables such as solar, wind and other energies.

“But keep in mind that this is a prototype we are building here,” Rasmussen says. “There is still plenty of work to do to complete the whole overall picture. But the objective, at least at this point, is to stick with fuel sourced from green hydrogen suppliers only.”

Toyota is providing two 80-kW hydrogen fuel cells to power propellers  from Mercury Marine.

Toyota is providing two 80-kW hydrogen fuel cells to power propellers from Mercury Marine.

Should Team New Zealand’s hydrogen-powered, foiling chase boat turn out to be a raging success, the development may have serious implications for other Cup competitors, as well as the Kiwis. There’s already talk among the Cup’s movers and shakers of mandating hydrogen 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,” says Sir Stephen Tindall, a New Zealand businessman, philanthropist and major backer of the project, “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. I am looking forward to seeing millions of hydrogen-driven vehicles and boats over the next 20 years.” 

This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue.

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