Two people in a hydrogen powered motorboat

Hydrogen for summer

E&T reports on the new hydrogen-related products we saw and tested in the world's first 'Hydrogen Village' in the Italian seaside town of Viareggio.

Blue skies, sparkling sea and the warmth of early Italian summer greeted the European Sailing Championships at Viareggio, 9-13 June 2010. Thoughts of being able to travel on water silently without an accompanying cloud of exhaust gases, and of cycling effortlessly along coast roads (helped by an electric motor to keep the cyclist cool) immediately come to mind - and the new hydrogen technology can make this a reality.

Acta Energy and Callegari, two Tuscan companies, were the main sponsors of the Star Class (Olympic men's keelboat) European Championship. They chose Viareggio as a showcase to present HIDRO, the world's first hydrogen tender developed by the two companies. On shore, Acta Energy, a division of Acta SpA, set up a Hydrogen Village that gave a vivid and enjoyable insight into the hydrogen society, displaying a range of products in addition to the Hidro tender.

With the onset of summer, our thoughts can follow a number of paths. One path would be leisure - enjoying the outdoors on land and on water; another may be making getting around more comfortable and, in the summer heat, in a cooler fashion. Boating and bicycling are two pursuits E Fsuited to summer, but certainly the latter can be hot work. Electric propulsion offers solutions to seasonal leisure pursuits and to the increasing environmental demands on transportation as a whole.

Electric propulsion

European authorities are beginning to introduce restrictions on the use of hydrocarbon-powered boats on their lakes to reduce pollution. Consequently, Europe has seen a rise in popularity of fast electric power boats for use on inland waters. As more lakes, marinas, ports and seaside towns are likely to impose tougher restrictions on engine exhaust and similar pollution, the electric power boat could become a common feature of the yachting and boating worlds, and quiet, pollution-free summer days on the water can be anticipated.

The question arises: what is the best way to power the electric motors on these boats? An obvious answer is batteries, and indeed batteries are likely to be found propelling most electrically-powered vehicles.

However, hydrogen fuel cells have entered the arena. For example, in Hamburg the ZEMship is an excursion ship that began operating on the Alster lake in the summer of 2008. This is a pilot project and is due to run for two years as a demonstration that ships powered by full cells offer the ideal solution for ecologically sensitive inland waterways. While this is a 100-passenger vessel, smaller electric boats for leisure and powered by hydrogen fuel cells have appeared on Lake Traunsee, Austria, and elsewhere.

The main advantage of these hydrogen fuel cell boats compared with conventional battery-powered electric boats is the fact that no time has to be spent charging the batteries. For conventional electric boats, six to eight hours of charging gives just four to six hours of use. The hydrogen-powered electric boat requires only the time it takes to change the fuel cartridge, approximately just five minutes.

With a range of 80km with a full hydrogen tank, this boat has twice the range of conventional battery-powered boats. Certainly with the larger lakes, like Como in Italy, this extra range is vital in making the concept a success.

Fuelled by hydrogen

Using hydrogen for fuel has been under consideration for a number of years now, and the 'Hydrogen Highway' remains one of the visions of a post-hydrocarbon era.

The call for a hydrogen society has been made in recent years as fuel to meet the future energy demands of a growing global population and to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. In transportation, for example, hydrogen is the only clean fuel available that is able to meet future stringent automotive emission requirements. Programmes have been undertaken worldwide to test hydrogen-fuelled buses, cars, scooters, bikes and logistics vehicles like forklift trucks.

In the automotive industry, some companies including BMW (Hydrogen 7) and Mazda (Premacy Hydrogen) have looked at hydrogen for internal combustion engines, while other manufacturers like DaimlerChrysler and General Motors are investing in fuel cells. Mercedes Benz has developed its own fuel cell technology and the F-Cell has been introduced into the B-Class.

Mercedes Benz has been working with fuel cells since 1994, and since 2003 has been running extensive testing of fuel cells in cars, vans, and service buses. Ford has looked at both technologies. Japanese and Asian auto companies have also been highly active in looking beyond the hydrocarbon era. Honda has been running its FCX fuel cell demonstrator cars on US roads for a number of years, and Nissan employs its own fuel cell technology in the Nissan's X-TRAIL FCV. All these vehicles are limited in number and require significant cost reductions before they can be commercialised.

Both hydrogen-fuelled and fuel cell vehicles emit only water at the exhaust. The lower energy density of hydrogen compared to petrol means that the BMW 7 Hydrogen needs more than three times the volume of liquid hydrogen than petrol to drive the same distance.

Hydrogen is highly attractive as a fuel because of is its natural compatibility with fuel cells. The higher efficiency of fuel cells - currently 60 per cent compared to 22 per cent for petrol or 45 per cent for diesel internal combustion engines - would dramatically improve the efficiency of future energy use. Coupling fuel cells to electric motors, which are more than 90 per cent efficient, converts the chemical energy of hydrogen to mechanical work without heat as an intermediary.

The majority of the focus on electric vehicles (EVs) from automobile and battery manufacturers is on providing more cost-efficient, reliable battery technology. Fuel cells provide more electric power than vehicle batteries and, provided there is a source of fuel, they avoid the necessary battery recharging times.

What is emerging as highly appropriate for the recreational market is the hybrid battery/fuel cell system, in which the motor is driven by the battery, which in turn is recharged by a hydrogen fuel cell. The hybrid system has the following advantages:

  • Improved battery life (the fuel cell maintains the charge at above 80 per cent, both at sea and on land);
  • Greater duration in use (the fuel cell and hydrogen in metal hydrid tanks extend battery life);
  • Better performance (electric motors are more efficient than combustion engine for torque and power).

Thus our summer pleasure seeker can enjoy a relaxing outing provided by the energy contained in a canister of hydrogen. However, as Paul Barritt, CFO of Acta, points out, while there are numerous products available that use hydrogen fuel cells, including bikes, motorboats and buses, the lack, to date, of a hydrogen infrastructure has acted as a barrier. 'All these fuel-cell products are available but right now you have to have a reason to buy one,' Barritt said.

Generating and storing hydrogen

Therein lies one of the key challenges to the hydrogen society (or economy, or highway) - economically and practically providing hydrogen for use as fuel. Certainly, with the majority of hydrogen generated today originating from reformed natural gas using electricity generated from hydrocarbon fuel, this would require a substantial infrastructure to deliver the hydrogen to the point of use.

Moreover, while the consumption of the hydrogen would be non-polluting, its generation does have a significant carbon footprint. However, this need not be an issue, with companies like ITM Power in the UK and Acta in Italy demonstrating static mobile hydrogen generator technologies. These are electrolysers, using electricity to generate hydrogen from water. They can be installed at home, for example, and generate hydrogen to directly fill fuel tanks or cartridges, or installed in a standard container or system and deployed on site.

By using electricity generated from renewable sources, 'green' hydrogen becomes a reality. There are developments underway to use electricity from renewable sources, storing the energy from intermittent sources (wind turbine, solar, marine).

Acta's hydrogen generator should be ready for mass production by the summer of 2010, according to Paolo Bert, the company's chief executive officer.

Having generated hydrogen, the next challenge is storage. Hydrogen storage will be needed both at the generating site and onboard vehicles and craft. There are three main methods of storing hydrogen: storing compressed gas in high pressure tanks, storing cryogenic liquid gas in insulated tanks, and storing the gas in special materials, e.g. metal hydride systems (a metallic powder that acts like a sponge: it absorbs up to 650 times its own volume of hydrogen) - either in the structure or on the surface of the material.

Technological developments are addressing the issues to allow hydrogen to play an active role for transport today, and it is anticipated that on-board storage technology will be vastly improved to provide acceptable long distance ranges.

Hydrogen bikes

Among other new products in the world's first Hydrogen Village in Viareggio were hydrogen-powered electric bikes available to pedal around the waterfront. The hydrogen for the fuel cell is stored in a small tank of metal hydride, which contains and releases the hydrogen at very low pressure (about 5 bar static pressure and 25 bars of issue). The electric bikes with 1 litre metal hydride tanks can travel around 100km at 25km/hr.

In a film shown in one of the hospitality tents in the Village - a rapidly-inflatable structure from Callegari which, in conjunction with a solar powered hydrogen generator and fuel cells, can be used for emergency/rescue operations - a film of Acta's hydrogen enrichment device for cars and trucks was shown. This readily retrofitted unit can significantly increase engine efficiency and reduce pollution.

The hydrogen used in the Village was generated by Acta's proprietary generator, which in turn was powered by solar photovoltaic panels arranged in a 1kW collapsible aluminium canopy. The canopy was also used to store a number of the hydrogen-powered bikes. The hydrogen generator is a key product, made possible by the development of a unique membrane technology that allows hydrogen to be generated in a dry, clean state and at high pressure. This allows for a simpler hydrogen generator as it eliminates the balance of plant required for drying and compressing the gas.

The advance of hydrogen technology offers benefits for the world. With the price of fuel cells and generators reducing to commercial levels, it is set to make a number of summer and recreational pursuits a lot easier and more enjoyable.

Denis Gross is an investment analyst covering technology companies

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them