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Hydrogen: superyacht fuel of the future, by Tristan Rutherford

Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, September 2021

In autumn 2010 Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was not a happy man. The Libyan leader was informed that his beloved 28m Sunseeker Predator, named Che Guevara in honour of his revolutionary hero, had been wrecked on a reef off Malta. The Colonel’s yacht was left to rot in a Maltese shipyard. 


Today the yacht’s purchase and conversation by Norwegian company Green Yacht could spark a greater revolution. Rechristened Hydrogen Viking, Gaddafi’s Sunseeker will launch in 2022 as the world’s first zero-emission, high-speed luxury yacht. She could herald the industry’s biggest shakeup in fueling, sustainability and naval design since the invention of steam.  


Leading the design of Hydrogen Viking is Norway-based naval architect Rory Coase. “The Sunseeker had a good sound hull to begin with,” says Coase. “Although the interiors were in a bit of a state,” including the helm chair that only Gadaffi was allowed to sit in. Not that it mattered to Coase. “We would be completely reconfiguring her anyway,” he explains. At the Noryards BMV shipyard near Bergen, the Sunseeker’s diesel tank and diesel engines were cut away. They are redundant in Coase’s masterplan. 


Next summer, the plan is to race Hydrogen Viking through the Norwegian fjords. “The ambition of the project is to hit speeds in the 30 knot range,” says Coase. Thanks to propulsion partner Corvus Energy, the world leader in supplying clean power to the shipping industry, “hydrogen tanks will power hydrogen fuel cells, which generate the energy for propulsion and charge batteries for peak usage”. The bottom line? “We’re aiming for a fast boat with fantastic handling,” continues Coase. “That’s one of the reasons Green Yacht picked a Sunseeker Predator, as the hull is designed for high speeds.” 


The jet ski garage will be missing too. It’s been sacrificed so that interested parties, from school groups to potential clients, can peek at the revolutionary tech that promises zero noise and zero pollutants. For a naval architect like Coase, that’s not the most impressive part. “The exciting thing is that if you strip away a traditional engine, plus the massive fuel tanks near the keel, the space you’re left with is wildly different to what you’d expect on a diesel engine powered boat.” On Hydrogen Viking the plan is to move the master cabin into the old engine room, with a private access passage to the sea. “We are experimenting on a pre-owned yacht,” clarifies Coase. “When designing a new hydrogen-powered yacht from scratch you could expect greater freedom to play around with more volume in very different places.” 


There are criticisms. Some say that hydrogen cells are power hungry. In fact they are adept at delivering non-stop power in a specific location, like in a data centre or a cargo ship. In Korea, Hyundai Heavy Industries recently committed to developing hydrogen powered tankers. Others say that the electrolysis process, which splits water into storable forms of hydrogen and oxygen, isn’t green unless renewables power the process. Considering the fierce winds off Norway and many other coastal destinations, green electricity can be plentiful in many locations. “The big limitation at the moment is that the infrastructure (to easily fuel vessels) isn't established yet,” admits Coase. “Although that’s only because hydrogen is at the beginning of a long term journey.” 


That journey has begun in earnest. In July 2021, Hynova 40 refuelled with hydrogen in the Port of Monaco. (Toulon has fixed hydrogen refuelling facilities while Nice and other French Riviera ports are considering installation.) The 12m yacht is the brainchild of Chloé Zaied, a former captain in Les Calanques, France's latest maritime/terrestrial National Park, where only zero emission craft have permission to cruise. Hynova 40 is capable of cruising at 22 knots for over two hours. Once again, the sole emission is water, which can be boiled and served as a café au lait. 


There’s more. This summer Hynova 40 competed in the Monaco Energy Boat Challenge. It’s an alternative fuels regatta where 32 teams comprising 16 nationalities compete in slalom and speed events, plus a 16 nautical mile race from Monaco to Ventimiglia and back. The YouTube videos of the event are epic. The 2021 edition features nine hydrogen-powered vessels hurtling past the art deco Yacht Club de Monaco. HSH Prince Albert II and Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile President Jean Todt were keen spectators. The yacht club itself was designed by Lord Foster with photovoltaic cells, which power LED lights within and electric car charging points outside.  


Bernard d’Alessandri is General Secretary and Managing Director of the Yacht Club de Monaco. He remembers the initial Energy Boat Challenge in 2014. “When we started the event eight years ago people were making boats in their garden,” he laughs. “Now we have specialist engineers, universities and energy companies backing our regatta.” 


d’Alessandri’s experience helps him understand how hydrogen tech might progress. “Each year more and more hydrogen-powered boats enter the challenge,” he explains. “Why? Because a yacht needs multiple capabilities. Sometimes speed, sometimes long distance capability, sometimes the need to anchor in silence. Combined perhaps with some other energy sources, I think hydrogen has the flexibility to provide all these different uses.” d’Alessandri believes hydrogen is best suited to the industry’s wider goals. “The ambition of the Yacht Club de Monaco is to be a responsible and sustainable organisation,” he asserts. “For example, we are building a hydrogen-powered race committee boat so that our events can be zero emission.” 


That’s not all. “We also must help the existing 2,017 motor yachts over 40m become more optimal,” says d’Alessandri. The Yacht Club de Monaco is already leading the way with the Superyacht Eco Association (SEA) Index. The index allows owners to calculate their environmental impact, helping to inspire a crossover into ecologically responsible propulsion. Does d’Alessandri think that hydrogen-powered superyachts might moor alongside the Yacht Club de Monaco? “Within the next decade,” he says, “I am quite certain they will.” 


One of those ecologically responsible yachts might be made by Lürssen. As Managing Partner Peter Lürssen told a Lürssen Live event, the German shipyard intends to launch the world’s first superyacht powered by hydrogen fuel cells in 2025. “We have an amazing owner who loves technology and new developments,” said Lürssen. “It will allow the owner more than 15 nights emission-free at anchor.” Alternatively the owner could slowly cruise in stealth mode for a thousand nautical miles, with neither noise or vibration in a climate neutral manner. Conventional generators will also be installed onboard. 


Lürssen has been part of a national hydrogen propulsion research group since 2009. To investigate the subject further, they are initiating a 120kw experimental hydrogen fuel cell inside their shipyard on the River Weser in Bremen. Here real life maritime conditions can be tested to breaking point. The resulting fuel cell, which converts the chemical energy of hydrogen into direct current electricity, will be modular. That means that if more power is needed, an engineer can install more units. Fuel cells are twice as efficient (in the region of 60% efficiency) as diesel engines (typically around 30%) and require little maintenance. Instead of nitrogen, soot and C02, the byproduct is simply water and hot air. 


Unlike Hydrogen Viking or Hynova 40, the German shipyard doesn’t plan to store pressurised or liquid hydrogen on board its first hydrogen fuel cell yacht. This method “requires a space consuming tank system,” says Björn Berndt, a project manager in Lürssen’s technical department. Instead hydrogen will be stored in structural methanol tanks in the bottom of the boat. “(T)he reforming process to convert hydrogen out of methanol is energy consuming,” admits Berndt, “but with further efforts we will be able to reduce these energy losses”. The future layout of a Lürssen yacht could be equally compelling. “A fuel cell system needs some space,” cautions Berndt. “But we are much more flexible in the arrangement (of power units). This enables us to realise more exciting designs.” 


Considering all the enthusiasm, it’s important to ask why hydrogen hasn’t been introduced before. After all, a century ago hydrogen powered the Graf Zeppelin airship. It flew around the world via New Jersey, Friedrichshafen, Tokyo and Los Angeles in 12 days, hitherto the speediest circumnavigation. In 1969 hydrogen powered the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Are vested interests or infrastructure holding hydrogen back? Could the Holy Grail of limitless autonomy and free green energy ever be realised?  


That dream of self sufficiency has already set sail. 30.5m Energy Observer is the first hydrogen-powered, zero-emission vessel that generates its own hydrogen en route. The catamaran’s six-year circumnavigation itinerary would wow any charter guest. In 2017 she was waved off from the Quai d’Orsay by the Mayor of Paris. In 2018 she slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar to Monaco, Venice and through the Corinth Canal to Cyprus. She’s currently midway across the Pacific after pausing in the Galapagos and Hawaii. All told, she will visit 50 countries to spotlight ecological initiatives including shark protection off Tiger Beach in The Bahamas and hydropower projects off the coast of Scotland. Energy Observer pauses not to refuel, simply for fun. 


Energy Observer is more than a free ride. She’s a floating model that showcases a ‘smart grid’ of solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen generators. These multiple power sources are optimised and stored in lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen tanks using an automated energy management system - “the brain” of the vessel. Further hydrogen can be produced during navigation by electrolysing seawater using an onboard electrolyser. Louis-Noël Viviès, General Manager of this “zero emissions, zero fine particles, zero noise” project, has made the technical aspects of Energy Observer public. “It is important to demonstrate a working energy network,” Viviès explains. “There are too many PowerPoint presentations around but very few actual operational systems!” 


It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime voyage, says Viviès. “The best experience was probably sailing up to the Spitsbergen,” the Arctic Ocean archipelago guarded by polar bears and beluga whales. “(There was) no sun, poor wind and very low temperatures. Thanks to the hydrogen storage, we could do it.” That sector of Energy Observer’s circumnavigation probably marks the first zero emission voyage past the Barents Sea. “Even (Dutch explorer William) Barents used a lot of coal to warm up the crew and cook,” Viviès explains. “The reliability and the durability of our fuel cell systems were excellent.” 


Viviès’s crystal ball seems to be powered by hydrogen. “The applications are well and truly there,” he explains. “We have had hundreds of inquiries. Many events will be using our systems soon.” These include, Viviès hopes, concerts, car races and fashion shows. “On land a hydrogen generator recently lit up the Eiffel Tower!” The colour of the tower’s illuminations? Green. 


For the luxury yacht industry, the current is harder to predict. Viviès mentions the onboard production of hydrogen, a new generation of hydrogen fuel cells and floating liquid hydrogen stations where yachts may refuel. What’s certain is that the future will be fuelled, at least in part, by the most abundant element on planet earth. 

Tristan Rutherford writes about superyachts for SEA+I Magazine and Boat International. 

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