Are fuel cells poised to become a serious option for voyagers?

On the surface, there are few emerging technologies that appear more attractive than the fuel cell. You combine hydrogen with oxygen, and you end up with electricity and pure water. It’s such an attractive proposition that you can almost hear voyaging sailors the world over saying, “Where do I send my check?”

Now a small company called HaveBlue LLC ( from Oxnard, Calif., has announced an ambitious program to design and test a fuel-cell, electric-powered system for voyaging sailboats. HaveBlue will use a specially modified Catalina 42 dubbed “X/V-1.” The name sounds more like a ride for Chuck Yeager than a boat, but since HaveBlue President Craig Schmitman comes from the airplane world, that’s no coincidence. HaveBlue plans to spend more than a year testing various configurations of fuel cells, electric motors, batteries, wind generators, solar cells and propellers in an effort to find the optimum mix for efficiency and cost effectiveness.

The potential for fuel cells is tremendous. A boat that gets its electricity and propulsive power (when it’s not sailing, of course) from fuel cells would substantially reduce the impact voyaging sailors have on the environment by eliminating exhaust fumes and oil spills. Additionally, a fuel-cell, electric-motor-powered vessel would eliminate the noise, vibration and smell associated with diesel-fired engines. And any company that could offer a powerful, reliable, cost-effective fuel-cell product could presumably expect a profitable return on its investment.

But don’t start loosening the mounting bolts of your diesel just yet. Fuel cells for use in everyday life have been a technology goal somewhat akin to the long-promised wonders of controlled fusion power (uncontrolled fusion technology was introduced in 1952 at Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific with the detonation of the first H-bomb). Fusion-driven plants for generating electricity are a “horizon” technology — it’s always a few decades away, never ready for practical use. One recent prediction for a working “demonstration” fusion power plant is 2035.

The prime difference between fusion power and fuel cells, of course, is that fuel cells actually work and have been used for decades as a power source for spacecraft. There has been considerable interest of late in the possibility of using fuel cells and electric-drive motors as a replacement for the gasoline internal combustion engine in automobiles. A major drawback to this approach, among others, is getting hydrogen fuel to motorists. A switch to hydrogen-fed fuel cells would mean plenty of obsolete gasoline pumps.

According to the farsighted HaveBlue team, this fuel-distribution issue is an area where sailboats have an advantage over cars. Boats float on vast oceans of fuel. An integral element in the HaveBlue concept is to “crack” seawater into its constituent parts. Apply an electrical current, and you get hydrogen and oxygen. Dump the oxygen (if you are in dire need of oxygen, your problems are much worse than a lack of fuel) and store the hydrogen for use in a fuel-cell stack.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. The electrical current from a fuel-cell stack can be stored in a battery bank, or it can be routed directly to electrical needs like lights, nav instruments, refrigeration or an electric motor for turning a propeller. Few voyagers will have a difficult time finding uses for a supply of electricity, since the electrical needs of the modern voyaging sailboat are substantial.

The “waste” produced by this reaction is pure, potable water — yet another item for which most voyagers will find a ready use. Plenty of electrical juice and fresh water, what more could a voyager ask for? Fuel cells that make rum?

If you examine the process described above, though, you might think there’s an element of perpetual motion at work here. You need electricity to run an electrolyzer to make hydrogen from water, to put the hydrogen into the fuel cell to make more electricity to make more hydrogen to make more electricity. But isn’t electricity required to start the process rolling? The HaveBlue team claims to have taken that fact into their calculations. They are relying on the fact that so many voyaging boats have wind generators and solar cells on their boats already and that voyagers are comfortable having that gear on future boats.

Using these auxiliary sources of electricity is enough, according to HaveBlue, to bootstrap the process. In fact, without the electrical output of 1) wind generators, 2) solar cells and 3) regenerative electrical production (see below), the HaveBlue system doesn’t work quite as well. “The reason this becomes practical is because you get the three overlapping technologies,” Schmitman said.

To test and fine-tune the systems behind the general concept of an electric boat, HaveBlue will be using its X/V-1 test boat, built for HaveBlue by project partner Catalina Yachts of Woodland Hills, Calif. In place of the usual diesel auxiliary engine, the X/V-1 was delivered with an empty engine bed, with the only part of a mechanical drive train in view being a prop shaft coupling.

To that shaft, HaveBlue installed an ST74 electric motor and control system from Solomon Technologies of Benedict, Md., another participating partner on the X/V-1 project. The Solomon motor is used for pushing the boat forward, of course, but it also has the ability to work as a water generator and produce electricity when the boat is under sail. When the X/V-1 is sailing, the prop can freewheel and produce electrical power. This approach is used in the automobile electric field and is called “regenerative braking.” When rolling downhill, for example, the free-spinning wheels are used to generate electricity. Similarly, the X/V-1 prop can generate electricity when sailing. “We’re doing testing of the electric drive right now,” Schmitman said. “We’re building it up system by system.”

Another element of the system is a watermaker. The electrolyzer needs pure, fresh water for making hydrogen. With the clean output from a reverse-osmosis watermaker (see the Special Section on watermakers in this issue), the electrolyzer can make 99.999 percent pure hydrogen. Spectra Watermakers of San Rafael, Calif., is another X/V-1 partner and is supplying the boat with a Newport 400 watermaker system that can produce 400 gallons a day using only a 1/3-hp motor.

Other partners in the X/V-1 project include Rutland Windchargers, E Paint antifouling paint and Ventura Harbor Boatyard. As for the electrolyzer and fuel-cell units, HaveBlue has not yet chosen a supplier for those components of the X/V-1 system.

Once they determine how all the elements will fit together in the marine environment, HaveBlue plans to supply the fuel-cell stack and other assorted gear to boat owners as either an OEM option or as a refit package. The company has plenty of testing to do, and there is a possibility that the fuel-cell-powered voyaging boat won’t be economically feasible. In light of the research still needed, HaveBlue is not prepared to quote an estimated price for a fuel-cell power system. Still, the folks at HaveBlue are confident they will work out the kinks and make fuel-cell power plants a viable method for generating electrical power and propulsion. If they are successful, voyaging could change forever.

By Ocean Navigator