The world’s first commercial hydrogen fuel cell-powered, electric drive ferry nears working life.
The world’s first commercial hydrogen fuel cell-powered, electric-drive ferry, Sea Change, is afloat in Bellingham, Wash., as it prepares for working life in San Francisco Bay.
The 70-foot, 75-passenger catamaran ferry is owned by SWITCH Maritime and was built by All American Marine, Inc. (AAM) with other partners. Regulatory approval from the U.S. Coast Guard is complete with delivery estimated relatively soon, according to AAM.
Sea Change is expected to complete several demonstration runs once in California before it is deployed as a commuter passenger vessel in the Bay Area. SWITCH is working on a contract for the demo runs prior to shipping the vessel.
“I was on board the other week,” SWITCH Founder/CEO Pace Ralli said. “Sea Change runs really smooth. It’s amazing to see it in operation.”
SWITCH’s stated aim is to build the first fleet of zero-emissions vessels in North America.
“My partners and I have been working on maritime decarbonization projects for about 10 years,” Ralli said. These projects include large infrastructure investments like fuel terminals and building ships.
“You notice a lot of industry players over the past decade have incrementally been making plans to get off heavy fuel and diesel,” he noted.
“It all started with an idea,” AAM President and COO Ron Wille said. “Hydrogen is new to AAM, but this project is the next step in our commitment to be the most innovative boat builder in North America. In today’s world, you can either disrupt the industry or be disrupted.”
Inception to Reality
Ralli invoked hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s advice: to skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.
“That was really the thesis; let’s start building what we believe is going to be the future and do it now,” he explained. We have the technology, it’s just a matter of putting it together in this application.”
According to Wille, Sea Change’s technological lineage can be traced to 2014 when San Francisco-based tour boat company Red and White Fleet approached Sandia National Laboratories to explore whether zero-emission, hydrogen fuel-cell technology could be applied to a new vessel.
Dr. Joe Pratt was working on fuel-cell technology at Sandia and talked to Red and White Fleet’s Tom Escher about putting fuel cells to work in boats. Wille said it all started with a single sentence on a call as Escher attempted to make Pratt understand his purpose: “I don’t want to reduce pollution—I want zero pollution.”
The SF-BREEZE project emerged as a collaboration between Sandia, Red and White Fleet, and others to examine the technical, regulatory and economic feasibility of a high-speed passenger ferry powered solely by hydrogen fuel cells, along with the associated hydrogen fueling infrastructure, within the context of the San Francisco Bay.
Pratt and Dr. Lennie Klebanoff led the charge for more than three years, and ultimately, their research concluded that it was theoretically possible to build such a vessel.
“The project was started in California at a reputable repair facility which was hired for a new vessel build,” said Wille, who also explained that it was moved to AAM for various reasons, “not the least of which was our decades of experience building innovative and custom boats.”
“In addition to dreaming up the project, we pulled together the financing and the partnerships that are required like project management and commercialization,” Ralli said. “It’s a very complex puzzle that needs to come to together to make it a reality. Putting that puzzle together is our expertise.”
To Ralli, the ferry application was a good place to start, since ferries are smaller vessels that return to a single homeport every night. They also operate in smaller regions so novel fueling infrastructure is only a factor in one area versus the global industry.
“AAM’s expertise in electric-drive working vessels made them an ideal candidate for the Sea Change project,” Ralli explained. Incat Crowther was brought in for the structural design, Zero Emissions Industries as the hydrogen power designer, Hornblower Corp. as the ferry systems designer, BAE Systems for the electrical propulsion system and Cummins Inc. for the fuel cells, among others.
“It was also particularly helpful that at AAM we had recent experience with building and outfitting previous hybrid Li-ion battery-powered vessels that have used many of the same BAE Systems propulsion components,” Wille added. “On the Sea Change, BAE Systems supplied the 300-kW traction motors and energy management systems that propel the vessel using the energy from the hydrogen fuel cells. BAE has both the proven technology and experience as a propulsion integrator. While this technology is new to the maritime industry, BAE has been delivering electric and fuel cell-powered propulsion for over 10 years so there is assurance in the safety, reliability and performance of the system.”
Sea Change is not only a pioneer in new technology, but also blazing a maritime regulatory trail. As the first vessel of its kind, all parties involved worked closely with the USCG to figure out how Sea Change fits into the regulatory seascape.
“The complications of building a new vessel are not to be underestimated when you’re using new technologies and working with agencies like the USCG to get approvals and establish processes with new technologies they’ve never worked with before,” said Ralli. “We have a lot of experience building complex projects in U.S. shipyards. One thing you absolutely must have are the best-in-class partners; technology partners, vendors and the shipyard itself.”
Sea Change Today and Tomorrow
The goal for Sea Change is to be a successful proof of concept to secure support from both private and public sectors for future, more ambitious hydrogen-electric passenger ferry and commercial vessel projects. While Sea Change’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered, electric-drive propulsion system deservedly gets most of the attention, there are many design features unique to the vessel. These include a 30-foot venting mast where the pure gaseous hydrogen fuel can be safely released if needed.
“When the vessel is operating, steam from heated water can occasionally be visible as it is being released,” said Wille. “The other item that stands out would be the upper-deck hydrogen tank array. Many of these features were known compromises to more easily obtain USCG regulatory approval.” Some of these items are likely to be altered to more closely resemble a traditionally powered vessel in future builds.
Performance specs are not yet published, but Ralli said Sea Change is relatively smaller and slower running than most passenger ferries in operation. “Building bigger and faster vessels requires more capital. We want to start small so it scales nicely so we can build bigger.”
Sea Change notably uses pure gaseous hydrogen fuel, a departure from other hydrogen powered working vessel projects like the Hydrogen One towboat designed by the Elliott Bay Design Group that utilizes methanol fuel. The liquid methanol fuel is converted to hydrogen fuel aboard, which is then used to power an electric-drive propulsion system.
“With the smaller boat, we use pure hydrogen and store it on board,” Ralli explained. This saves space, as roughly double the volume of methanol is currently needed to produce the same energy as diesel fuel. “We have 246 kilograms of storage in tanks on board for gaseous hydrogen. That allows us to go almost 350 nautical miles before we need to refuel, so that gives us a few days of operation.”
Future hydrogen-electric sister ships could also be paired with large battery banks to provide a certain amount of pure electric running time.
The Big Picture
“There will not be any one-size-fits-all solution for the replacement of the internal combustion engine,” said Wille. “However, hydrogen fuel cell technology will likely leapfrog both traditional diesel and hybrid-electric propulsion methods as one of the most beneficial for maritime applications.” He cites the transportability and high-energy density of hydrogen as key reasons for the pivot.
“While this vessel is monumental in its impact for the maritime sector, it’s just the starting point,” said Wille, noting Cummins’ stance on the viability of hydrogen as a major energy source. “The goal of Cummins and other hydrogen producers will be to create hydrogen via 100% renewable sources in the future. As projects such as this move forward, demand for hydrogen will increase and the development and distribution of this fuel will be further streamlined and clean, becoming a truly net-zero energy resource.”
While Sea Change itself is producing zero pollution in that it predominately emits water vapor and heat, the hydrogen fuel is only as carbon neutral as its source. However, it’ll be up to society at large to invest in green hydrogen fuel sources and infrastructure to realize a truly zero-pollution vision. As of today, most hydrogen fuel is sourced from fossil fuels.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to build out the green hydrogen supply chain,” Ralli said. Meanwhile, he believes it’s important to invest in the vessel technology so it’s ready. “I think the Sea Change is going to live up to its name in that it’s going to be a catalyst.”
He cited optimism with regards to anticipated Department of Energy federal funding.
“We speculate that hydrogen is going to play a major role because when all the fueling procedures are in place, it really looks a lot like how vessels receive fuel today,” Ralli said. “The crew and the operator don’t really have to change anything about what they do, and you don’t need to build a ton of new infrastructure for that fueling on shore.”
A la Gretzky, Ralli looks to where the puck is going.
“There’s a ton of federal incentives that are pushing the technology,” he said, “so I think it’s a super exciting time right now for hydrogen.”
Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at norriscomer.com.