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Sandia helps set up future of ocean research with hydrogen fuel cells

Image of Artist conception of fuel cell vessel
FUEL CELL FUTURE — An Engineering model of a new Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel that incorporates hydrogen fuel cells with a liquid hydrogen tank — labelled LH2. The vessel was conceived by Sandia, Glosten and Scripps, with the hydrogen fuel cell providing power for propulsion and energy for the ship’s systems (Photo courtesy of Glosten).

Lennie Klebanoff has received considerable acknowledgment for his groundbreaking work to understand the wider applicability of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells.

But Lennie didn’t expect that his work would inspire students at one of the oldest and most respected schools of ocean and Earth research on the planet: The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego. These students petitioned Scripps to commit to a zero-emission fleet of research vessels following an analysis of hydrogen fuel-cell power on ships.

“It’s completely out of the blue,” Lennie said of the petitions and personal appeals to school administrators. “We didn’t talk with these students. They are trying to motivate the university to take action. It’s great that our work inspired these young people.”

Partnering with Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Lennie began working with Scripps Institution of Oceanography more than four years ago following the success of an influential 2016 analysis he and former Sandian Joe Pratt wrote on the feasibility of high-speed hydrogen-powered ferries on San Francisco Bay. That report led to the State of California funding construction of the first commercial hydrogen ferry in the Western Hemisphere and a Tech Transfer Award from the Federal Labs Consortium.

Scripps, in a project funded by the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, asked for Sandia’s help with their research fleet.

“Scripps wanted to know if it would be possible to use hydrogen fuel cells to power research vessels, since they needed to replace three ships in their aging fleet,” Lennie recalled. “So, we were able to get more funding from MARAD. In collaboration with Scripps and the naval architect Glosten, we looked into that question. Turns out, the answer is yes, as we reported in 2018.”

The impact of that 2018 study was immediate and profound, according to Bruce Appelgate, Scripps’ associate director of Ship Operations & Marine Technical Support.

“Our imagination really took off. They were showing that non-polluting hydrogen fuel cells could be used in a maritime environment,” Appelgate recounted. “Our mission at Scripps is to explore the planet from the ocean depths to the top of the atmosphere. While we do this, we also want to go the extra yard to care for the environment.”

But hydrogen fuel-cell vessels would also help data collection.

“For research purposes, a hydrogen-powered boat can actually work better,” Appelgate explained. “Emissions from diesel engines can corrupt our samples, and noise from diesel engines degrades the sensitivity of our underwater hydrophones. We can collect better samples and observations from hydrogen-electric ships.”

From study to design

Lennie became committed to helping Scripps achieve their aim: clean power for their research.

“Partnering again with Scripps and Glosten, we did a follow-on feasibility study looking at using fuels cells as part of a hybrid power train, in other words a hydrogen hybrid vessel,” Lennie said. “What if you had a diesel engine coupled with a hydrogen fuel cell to provide partial power? What would that vessel look like? A hydrogen hybrid vessel would be a nice way to introduce hydrogen technology onto a research vessel.”

But it wouldn’t be easy, recalled Glosten’s senior marine engineer Sean Caughlan.

“When made from green sources, hydrogen can provide amazing environmental benefits but compared to diesel it has low energy by volume. Therefore, the challenge is carrying enough to provide a meaningful benefit,” Caughlan said. “The other challenge is that the design rules constrain where on the vessel the hydrogen can be stored, and it can be difficult to find space while still providing room for normal vessel operations. Safety is the highest priority in vessel design and with hydrogen’s inherent volatility there are a number of systems that must be added, all with a space and weight cost to the vessel.”

Taking the first steps with hydrogen

In the meantime, Scripps was gaining practical experience with hydrogen fuel-cell technology via a separate and parallel Maritime Administration-DOE project to use a land-based containerized 100-kilowatt fuel-cell generator to provide power for research vessels while in port at the Scripps’ Nimitz Marine Facility in San Diego.

“I think this land-based project helped to make fuel-cell technology more real to Scripps. They saw what a fuel cell looks like, how they operate, and what hydrogen tanks look like and how they are refilled. This shore power demonstration project helped take the mystery out of the technology, in a good way,” Lennie said.

But the project found other proponents — a group no one expected.

“The students found out about all this work we’ve been doing and are now using it to promote their own ecological agenda to Scripps,” explained Appelgate.

“Every time I went out on a stump speech for zero emissions, people got really excited,” he added. “The students just glommed on to this. The students started the petition asking the administration — me — to make a research vessel with hydrogen fuel cells happen. I’ve never been petitioned like this. There is a lot of activism right now. A lot of issues bubbling to the surface. This is a big issue that isn’t acrimonious.”

Designing a hydrogen hybrid vessel

Thanks to the students and Scripps’ dedication to their vision, the university and Sandia weren’t done imagining the future.

As part of the 2020 feasibility study of a hydrogen hybrid vessel, Lennie and his Glosten and Scripps collaborators designed a hydrogen vessel that met the 14 science mission needs that Scripps had to have in new research vessel, all the while satisfying the speed, stability and other vessel performance requirements of a high-performance research vessel.

“Our design showed the basic feasibility — but to actually build a vessel you need very detailed designs and engineering drawings, far beyond the scope of our project,” Lennie said.

But the work was enough for Scripps to finalize their plans for replacing their fleet, starting with the research vessel the Robert Gordon Sproul. In 2021, Appelgate and his Scripps colleagues put in a proposal to the State of California to fully design and build the hydrogen hybrid to replace the 40-year-old Sproul.

Scripps sets sail in a new direction

On July 23, U.C. San Diego announced that the California Legislature decided to fund the project with $35 million, enabling the construction of a hydrogen hybrid research vessel to replace the Sproul, setting the stage for a new beginning. Appelgate said having hydrogen as a component made the proposal successful and that he believes the lawmakers would not have funded a diesel-only vessel.

 “This is so exciting,” Lennie said. “I went out in the hallway and did a cartwheel. I’m just happy that our work has been found useful by others and will help reduce emissions in the maritime setting.”

Caughlan sees a future full of potential.

“Hydrogen can store many times more energy by weight or volume than batteries. It may not be practical for crossing oceans, but for coastal vessels, there’s a lot of promise,” the marine engineer said. “It is important for institutions like Scripps, Sandia and Glosten to take a leading role in establishing the science, design practices and standard operating procedures to make sure the technology is successful in the vessel application.”

Lennie said he’s just proud to have been a part of this revolutionary project.

“Bruce at Scripps as well as Sean Caughlan and Robin Madsen from Glosten have been incredible partners,” he said.

Appelgate was effusive about how Sandia helped set a new standard for ocean research.

“The great outcome of this work was learning that it was all technically possible using commercially available gear,” Appelgate said. “The magic sauce now is in the integration of it all into a working vessel, which had not been shown previously to be possible. The vision that Lennie has brought to this — he’s way out in front in terms of how hydrogen can really be transformative. I am so proud to be involved in this with Lennie and Sandia and Glosten.”

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