Throwback Thursday: World’s 1st hydrogen boats

Last week we wrote about the world’s 1st hydrogen powered river tugboat, and we’ve also covered some of the voyages of the amazing Energy Observer, the H-powered research ship going around the world emission-free.

Which got us wondering about the first hydrogen powered boats ever, which in turn led us to the definitive book about clean marine propulsion, Kevin Desmond’s Electric Boats and Ships: A History. (Buy on Amazon)

The book, as it always does, covers the subject thoroughly and has a number of examples of the beginnings of hydrogen power all over the world. Here is an excerpt about the world’s first (full size) hydrogen powered vessel.

“Although in 1965, Siemens R&D had equipped a boat called Eta with a fuel cell propulsion system and demonstrated it on a pond at their Erlangen Research Center in Bavaria, it was only in 2000, 35 years later, that Hydra, innocently proclaimed as “the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell electric boat,” began to give demonstrations along the Ketelvaart and Leie Canals of Ghent, Belgium.”

The Hydra used a Europe 21 fuel cell electric generator developed by Etaing GmbH, which had been founded in Leipzig a year earlier by Professor Harald Klein of Linde Engineering and Christian Machens, who had the idea for the boat.

Here’s a video of the making of the vessel that we discovered on YouTube.

It took thirty minutes to refuel Hydra and carrying 22 passengers she could travel for 16 hours in her Teflon-coated hull with a cruising speed of 9kmh (5.6mph / 4.8knts). Unfortunately, Etaing went into liquidation in September 2001 – but not before its historic creation had carried over 1,600 passengers.

Hydrogen power was being tested all over the world

There’s more in Mr. Desmond’s book: a Swiss design, a 2004 converted Duffy Boat in California that ran for over a year in 2005-5, and the FCS Alsterwasser, a 100 passenger ferry which began its trials in the summer of 2008 with a bus fuel cell at its core, plying the inner-city waterways of Hamburg.

From ‘Electric Boats’:

“The “green ferry” was part of the €5.2m Zemship project, which involved 9 German and Czech partners and was led by Hamburg’s State Ministry for Urban Development and Environment. Proton Motors of Puchheim built the drive train using an existing bus fuel cell in the project, adapted for marine requirements, including layout of the drive train, design of mechanical interfaces and safety analysis. Fuel came from compressed hydrogen in 12 hydrogen fuel tanks and the ferry could also fall back on a 560 V lead-gel battery should an alternative power source be needed.”

By 2014 the Alsterwasser had logged 4000 operating hours and transported more than 50,000 passengers on Lake Alster.

a 40 foot boat with a roof on topA couple of other notables from the book:

In 2003 MTU Friedrichshafen, a division of Daimler Benz, unveiled the first standard yacht with a fuel cell propulsion system, a 40ft / 12m Beneteau yacht which took the name No. 1. (A bit similar to Solar 1, the world’s first solar boat built by Britain’s Alan Freeman in 1975 and covered in a TBT a couple of weeks ago.) Although built in Germany, No.1 made her international debut in Japan.

And coming out of the Duffy Boat work, which had been partly funded by the US Department of Energy, the San Francisco Water Transit Authority contracted for the world’s first fuel cell–powered commuter ferry in 2005. The 149-passenger ship was planned to run from the city out to Treasure Island and back.

The long road to today’s hydrogen-powered boats

We note these two because they show that the voyage of any new technology is a long and sometimes torturous one from inspiration to widespread adoption.

In the first example, the line from the 1965 Siemens pond boat to the 2003 Benneteau leads straight to the river boat being built for the waterways of France, because the cells for the world’s first hydrogen powered riverboat come from Ballard, whose ‘CoolCell’ modules were installed in that Benneteau ‘No. 1’.

And next week Plugboats will write about is happening in 2019 in the San Francisco harbour – another exciting link in the chain of clean hydrogen marine propulsion.


»» Check out our other Throwback Thursdays
»» Read about some recent electric boat World 1sts

Electric Boats and Ships: A History
Available from Amazon, including Kindle

Amazon Customer Review: “Desmond’s new book leaves no doubt that electrically powered vehicles are already a fixture on the firmament of propulsion and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Well illustrated, meticulously written and researched, this book is a guaranteed ‘must’ on the bookshelves of all who have interest in this subject.


DISCLOSURE: The excerpts from Electric Boats and Ships: A History have been provided by Mr. Desmond and the book’s publishers at the request of Plugboats. Plugboats receives a standard Amazon affiliate commission for any copies purchased through the links on this site.

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