Space & Innovation

Hydrogen-Powered Ferry Could Float in SF Bay

Researchers conceive of an emission-free boat big enough to speed 150 passengers across the San Francisco Bay.

<p>Sandia National Lab</p>

Ah, the sun in your face, the wind in your hair, the spray of seawater against your skin, and the throat-constricting fumes of diesel in your airway. The only thing louder than your coughing is the chug of the engine motoring across the waves. Isn't it high time someone found a better way to power a ferry?

A team of researchers at Sandia National Labs have just the ticket: an emission-free boat big enough to speed 150 passengers across the San Francisco Bay.

Ever since Tom Escher, president of San Francisco's Red and White Fleet, came up with the idea to eliminate emissions from his high-speed ferries, Joe Pratt and Lennie Klebanoff have been investigating the feasibility of making one powered by hydrogen fuel cells. These cells convert liquid hydrogen into electricity without creating CO2 emissions. In fact, the only by-product is water.

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And sure, other boats exist that are powered by hydrogen fuel, but they're typically smaller and much slower than diesel-powered ones. That's because fuel cells are heavier than diesel engines for the same energy output.

But Pratt and Klebanoff figured out a way to make a hydrogen-powered ship work. They designed the ferry -- named SF BREEZE -- as a catamaran with a longer than average hull. That saved weight for the fuel cells. With a full crew and passenger list, the ship would be able to maintain a speed of 35 knots (39 mph/63 kmh) for 65 percent of its time on the move. It could make four round trips of 50 miles every day with midday refuels during off-peak times.

The only down side at the moment is the cost: about three times that of a diesel engine. For the next step, the team members will have to take decide if they want to trade weight for speed in order to reduce the cost.

Maybe the best part to look forward to is the quiet ride.

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