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Mystery Surrounds $644 Million Hydrogen-Powered Superyacht


AQUA

There has been much fanfare in the media these last few days over a report that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates commissioned a hydrogen-powered $644 million superyacht from Sinot Yacht Architecture & Design – the vessel itself nicknamed “The AQUA.” According to design specifications released by the manufacturer, the 367-foot vessel would store its liquid hydrogen fuel in twin 28-ton vacuum-sealed tanks cooled to minus-423 degrees Fahrenheit. The sci-fi concept ship received an enormous amount of hype when it was revealed in May at the latest Monaco Yacht show.

But over the past 48 hours, rumors of the deal have been met with outright denial from the design firm and no comment from Mr. Gates. It’s not clear exactly how this widely reported news broke, but Sinot — who is calling those articles ‘factually inaccurate’ — is certainly benefitting from the publicity. Regardless of whether the billionaire actually commissioned the ship, intriguing technical questions remain.

The Hype around Hydrogen

Simply put, hydrogen fuel cell technology works by generating electricity through a chemical reaction. As I’ve written about before, pressurized hydrogen (H2) is the ‘fuel’ in the tank, which then interacts with oxygen (O2) in the air to create electricity through a chemical reaction. Fuel cells are inherently more efficient than combustion engines, which must first convert chemical potential energy into heat, and then mechanical work. Currently most internal combustion engines operate with an efficiency around 25% and power plants achieving about a 35% efficiency; however, a stationary fuel cell, when used in a combined heat and power system, can have an efficiency level of greater than 80%.

Fuel cells systems are more environmentally friendly than internal combustion engines, as the only byproduct is H2O (and its clean enough to drink). Hydrogen fuel cells can be thought of as batteries that never run flat as long as the H2 keeps coming.

Hydrogen can be transported via pipeline or in super-cooled liquid form by ships much like liquefied natural gas (LNG), and the refueling processes is comparable to conventional cars, planes, and boats, provided you can find a hydrogen gas station. Speaking of LNG, a growing number of marine vessels have made the switch from dirty bunker fuel to cleaner-burning natural gas — and infrastructure development is accelerating.

The idea of using hydrogen energy in large vessels is certainly not new – in fact, liquid hydrogen fuel is what NASA has used to launch rockets into space since the 1970’s (it’s important to distinguish that NASA used H2 as a propellent like jet fuel, not to produce electricity through a fuel cell). Hydrogen powered vehicles have already hit global markets, albeit with limited success. A lack of infrastructure and high costs mean that the economics still don’t work for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

But the AQUA is not for mass consumption, and that means it can can excel were everyday commuter vehicles have failed.

To power its two 28-ton engines, the AQUA will supposedly employ a proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC), the leading hydrogen fuel cell technology currently employed in many light duty and materials handling vehicles. Together the system will generate up 4 megawatts (MW) of power – or 4 million watts. That’s more than the average onshore wind turbine, which has a capacity of 2.5 – 3 MW.

The Yacht boasts a range of 3,750 nautical miles (6,945 kilometers) and can (theoretically) reach speeds upwards of 17 knots. Pretty fast for a five-deck boat with room for 45.

As the technology progresses, do not be surprised if we start seeing large commercial cruise liners, ferries, and small boats powered by a hybrid architecture of fuel cells and batteries. Like with Tesla and the electric car, the transition to a new and expensive technology like hydrogen may need to start with a luxury brand. Once a critical mass of interest is generated, energy and resources can be applied to reducing technology costs, improving infrastructure, and achieving scale.

Whether or not Bill Gates is behind this new superyacht, the technology that underlines the luxury vessel may one day become one for the masses.

With Assistance from David Pasmanik

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There has been much fanfare in the media these last few days over a report that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates commissioned a hydrogen-powered $644 million superyacht from Sinot Yacht Architecture & Design – the vessel itself nicknamed “The AQUA.” According to design specifications released by the manufacturer, the 367-foot vessel would store its liquid hydrogen fuel in twin 28-ton vacuum-sealed tanks cooled to minus-423 degrees Fahrenheit. The sci-fi concept ship received an enormous amount of hype when it was revealed in May at the latest Monaco Yacht show.

But over the past 48 hours, rumors of the deal have been met with outright denial from the design firm and no comment from Mr. Gates. It’s not clear exactly how this widely reported news broke, but Sinot — who is calling those articles ‘factually inaccurate’ — is certainly benefitting from the publicity. Regardless of whether the billionaire actually commissioned the ship, intriguing technical questions remain.

The Hype around Hydrogen

Simply put, hydrogen fuel cell technology works by generating electricity through a chemical reaction. As I’ve written about before, pressurized hydrogen (H2) is the ‘fuel’ in the tank, which then interacts with oxygen (O2) in the air to create electricity through a chemical reaction. Fuel cells are inherently more efficient than combustion engines, which must first convert chemical potential energy into heat, and then mechanical work. Currently most internal combustion engines operate with an efficiency around 25% and power plants achieving about a 35% efficiency; however, a stationary fuel cell, when used in a combined heat and power system, can have an efficiency level of greater than 80%.

Fuel cells systems are more environmentally friendly than internal combustion engines, as the only byproduct is H2O (and its clean enough to drink). Hydrogen fuel cells can be thought of as batteries that never run flat as long as the H2 keeps coming.

Hydrogen can be transported via pipeline or in super-cooled liquid form by ships much like liquefied natural gas (LNG), and the refueling processes is comparable to conventional cars, planes, and boats, provided you can find a hydrogen gas station. Speaking of LNG, a growing number of marine vessels have made the switch from dirty bunker fuel to cleaner-burning natural gas — and infrastructure development is accelerating.

The idea of using hydrogen energy in large vessels is certainly not new – in fact, liquid hydrogen fuel is what NASA has used to launch rockets into space since the 1970’s (it’s important to distinguish that NASA used H2 as a propellent like jet fuel, not to produce electricity through a fuel cell). Hydrogen powered vehicles have already hit global markets, albeit with limited success. A lack of infrastructure and high costs mean that the economics still don’t work for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

But the AQUA is not for mass consumption, and that means it can can excel were everyday commuter vehicles have failed.

To power its two 28-ton engines, the AQUA will supposedly employ a proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC), the leading hydrogen fuel cell technology currently employed in many light duty and materials handling vehicles. Together the system will generate up 4 megawatts (MW) of power – or 4 million watts. That’s more than the average onshore wind turbine, which has a capacity of 2.5 – 3 MW.

The Yacht boasts a range of 3,750 nautical miles (6,945 kilometers) and can (theoretically) reach speeds upwards of 17 knots. Pretty fast for a five-deck boat with room for 45.

As the technology progresses, do not be surprised if we start seeing large commercial cruise liners, ferries, and small boats powered by a hybrid architecture of fuel cells and batteries. Like with Tesla and the electric car, the transition to a new and expensive technology like hydrogen may need to start with a luxury brand. Once a critical mass of interest is generated, energy and resources can be applied to reducing technology costs, improving infrastructure, and achieving scale.

Whether or not Bill Gates is behind this new superyacht, the technology that underlines the luxury vessel may one day become one for the masses.

With Assistance from David Pasmanik

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