Hydrogen assisted Sailboat – the Making of a Dream

Morning Star - the yacht which inspired it all
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Jim Harrington is the very essence of an inventor – with an impressive history of electronic and mechanical product design in astrophysics, geophysics and oceanographic – but it took the experience of messing about on his 42ft ketch Morning Star to inspire this dream.

'It was early February 07 and I was running up the diesel engine in Morning Star. With diesels, there is smoke, smell, and the noise, all of which cannot be good for me - or the environment. So I thought, is there not a better way? In early 1970 I had seen a fuel cell onboard an Apollo spacecraft and that came to mind, followed by the question, is it time for this technology to be used?'

Since then, Harrington has worked with friend Ian Soutar, who works in the fuel cell laboratory at the University of Victoria, to develop a 5 hp outboard which will cleanly and silently replace the fuel hungry diesel or petrol engine for the weekend sailor. The process is simple: The fuel cell ('a high powered solar panel that works in the dark') powered by hydrogen('sunshine in a bottle') on the boat charges the battery power box; which in turn runs the motor driving the boat without the use of the sails. While under sail, the small fuel cell recharges the battery pack back to full charge in a short time period.

It seems like a modest ambition, but if achieved, it could be the start of a whole new way of powering yachts – not to mention other types of transport. 'Not that different from the development of the automobile,'says Harrington, and, referring to the lack of hydrogen pumps on every corner, 'and let us also note that there were no gas stations on every corner then, but look at it now.'

But the way is not easy: Harrington began by looking for Government Research and Development money to develop his idea, and with his background, you would think that would be easy.

However, as he remembers, 'I was told the use of fuel cells was too risky and that there was no potential to commercialize such a product. Then, 6 months later, when we succeeded at getting a system that works, we were told that we still did not qualify for funding. The same government research and development agencies that initially refused funding now could not fund further development of the system because the project was now considered to be simple engineering.' As an afterthought, he adds, 'Almost like somebody does not want hydrogen projects to work out.'

boat solar2
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This left no option but for Harrington, determined to continue with an idea he thought had potential, to fund the project himself, with loans of the actual fuel cells from two manufacturers – Horizon/Igreen Technologies and Palcan Ltd.

Since then, working on many fronts at once, Harrington and Soutar have tested and evaluated various methods of achieving their aim. By September, on a boat used by Harrington for other research work – a bilge keeled sailing boat called Jim D - they had bench tested and installed a hydrogen fuel cell system on the boat, and tested it at sea.

They were ready to go!

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On 1st September 2007, they undertook a 21 nautical mile sailing journey on Jim D which started and finished with hydrogen. 'What a beautiful ride it was, ' says Jim, 'Especially the portions while under fuel cell drive. The boat slipped quietly through the water almost totally quiet except for the occasional puff of water vapour coming out the fuel cell's exhaust.

This was a valuable experience for the unfunded project. 'It has pointed to the strengths and weakness of the overall method and systems available. It has also shed light on how to do this for a very reasonable price. This small system is a good emergency motor power system and a good APU set up for the sailboat.'

However, the achievement, while impressive and showing the way forward, is only the first of a five stage plan.

Stage 2 involves the introduction of a 1Kw fuel cell and high pressure tank arrangement for the storage of the hydrogen, overall cost and safety being the major concern.

Stage 3 will involve achieving 100 lb of thrust by the use of 2 of 1KW fuel cells supplied by Palcan, and reduction in the weight of the overall system through the use of high voltage AC electric motors.

Stage 4 will take the thrust to 250lbs, and during these stages adaptor kits will be developed to be able to retrofit old Evenrude or Mercury gas outboards.

Stage 5 will involve the finalisation of both the form and function of the fuel cell powered 5hp outboard, and market it as a kit or complete product. Harrington plans to 'hand the system over to some group that would like to sell the system.'

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All of these stages require time, and money, to achieve. There are many issues to be solved. Hydrogen supply is one of them, because the easy and cheap availability of hydrogen is as a by-product of the petroleum industry. Hydrogen storage is another. Temperature is yet another issue, as there is water vapour present in fuel cells, making their use in cold climes problematic. The list goes on....

However, this project, as positive and forward looking as it is, is a money drain, not a money producer, and Harrington, who heads a company called A.G.O. Environmental Electronics Ltd, (www.agoenvironmental.com) must spend time on money making projects.

Hence it is difficult, because of the lack of funding, to keep the project moving forward. 'Since this is not my day job, but my hobby, all I can say is 'so much to do, so little time......'

To learn more about the technicalities of the project, go to the web page

To discuss the project, email Jim Harrington on info@agoenvironmental.com

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