Real and imaginary hydrogen boats show a more sustainable future for seafaring

Professional Engineering

The Energy Observer is designed to be able to produce hydrogen on board from seawater (Credit: Shutterstock)
The Energy Observer is designed to be able to produce hydrogen on board from seawater (Credit: Shutterstock)

In February, the Sunday Telegraph published a story about an extravagant purchase from a usually relatively frugal billionaire.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the second-richest man in the world, had – according to the paper – splashed £500m on the world’s first hydrogen-powered superyacht, called the Aqua. The story soon spread worldwide – but it wasn’t true. 

Gates denied the purchase, and Sinot, the company behind the yacht, quickly put out a statement on its website – which no doubt experienced a significant spike in traffic – saying that the Telegraph piece was completely false. The design, which was unveiled at the Monaco Yacht Show in May 2019, would have stored its fuel as liquid hydrogen in twin 28-tonne vacuum-sealed tanks cooled to –250°C. It remains on the drawing board, however, unless a wealthy billionaire comes along for real.

The story did, however, tap into a new trend for more sustainable seafaring – albeit not quite as alluring as the boat Gates had supposedly commissioned. Energy Observer, the world’s first hydrogen-powered ship, is currently on a six-year, zero-emissions trip around the world. It’s being used as a demonstrator and ‘floating laboratory’ to show that it is possible to decarbonise shipping, which accounts for an estimated 2.2% of man-made carbon emissions.

Car technology at sea 

This year, Energy Observer will be fitted with a new technology that’s been adapted from the fuel cell used in Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Mirai line of vehicles. According to the company, it will offer the higher power and efficiency needed as the Energy Observer attempts to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 2020.  

Of course, hydrogen power is only as clean as the energy that’s used to produce it. In December, Japanese industrial giant Kawasaki Heavy launched a new ship that’s designed to transport supercooled liquid hydrogen from Australia, where it’s made, to Japan where it’s needed. But that hydrogen is produced using oil and gas, and the boat itself runs on diesel.

Energy Observer on the other hand is designed to be able to produce hydrogen on board, from seawater, without releasing greenhouse gas emissions. It uses three types of solar panels spread over 130m2, along with two wind turbines and a traction kite to generate the power, which is then stored as hydrogen. 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 


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