Anchors Away for Hydrogen Research

Relaxing on the deck of a sailboat, you guide your vessel silently through the gentle breeze. Care – and pollution – free.

Kings Point, Long Island – February 14, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] But this sailboat has no sails or rigging for that matter. Rather, a fuel cell, powered by hydrogen extracted through the use of Renewable Energy, powers a small trolling motor at the stern of the ship. This is the dream of Cpt. Douglas Brown, a professor of marine engineering at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at Kings Point, New York on Long Island. A dream that may soon to become a reality thanks to his and his student’s dedication and a little help from their friends. Since 1999, senior Midshipmen in Brown’s elective engineering class have taken his idea for renewably-extracted hydrogen to the reality of an alternative energy lab and what is known as the Kings Point Hydrogen Project. The first team of students developed the concept, identified funding and began assembling components of a Renewable Energy system – a 1400 W array of 24, 60 W Siemens Solar panels, a 900 W Southwest Windpower wind turbine, a Trace inverter and Trojan batteries. That early 48 v system, sent power directly into Brown’s lab powering a hydrogen generator, which extracted the element from water; an air compressor to further compress the hydrogen and a computer. But that was just the beginning. In December, installation of a 10 kW thin film PV system was completed by Brooklyn-based Terra Solar. The system, now tied into the existing PV and wind generation system, consists of over 2,000 square feet of panels mounted in recycled plastic frames on the roof of USMMA’s Math, Science and Engineering building. The system was funded in part by a US$6/W rebate from the Long Island Power Authority. The USMMA funded the remainder of the US$8/W project. The question of what to do with the hydrogen produced was answered when Brown came across a surplus “Flying Scot,” 19-foot sailboat. The rigging and centerboard of the boat have been removed to make room for a five-foot long compressed hydrogen tank and an advanced prototype 5 kW hydrogen fuel cell that is being tested by Plug Power who is donating the unit to the program. Plug Power and LILCO, who are working under a cooperative agreement to develop the new prototype fuel cell, are presently working directly with the Merchant Marine Academy students to incorporate the 5 kW test unit into the Kings Point hydrogen system. The hydrogen produced in Brown’s lab will be compressed into tanks, feeding the fuel cell to generate electricity. That power will charge three, 12 volt, deep cycle marine batteries which in turn will power a small trolling motor mounted on the stern of the boat. (The technical issue of converting the 200-300 v of generated by the fuel cell into the 36 v the battery bank needs is currently being tackled at Plug Power.) The power should be enough to generate 110 pounds of thrust for the trolling motor allowing the ship to travel at between 8 to 10 knots (10-12 mph), according to Brown. This project has taught students in Brown’s class about several renewable technologies, giving them hands on experience in an undergraduate environment. “By tying together the benefits of solar energy, wind power and fuel cell technology into one system, we’ll in effect be increasing the flexibility and reliability of the system,” said Chad Mickelson, a Midshipman at the USMMA. “This makes the prospects of alternative energy much more lucrative and marketable.” “I believe the prospects of Renewable Energy become more of a reality with each passing day,” said Mickelson, who hopes to attend Naval Flight School upon graduation. “With state and federal support of such technology development and adequate financial backing, I don’t see why we shouldn’t someday see alternative energy as not only environmentally friendly, but also as an economically advantageous means of producing electricity.” Brown admitted that it will be a long time before USMMA graduates will find themselves on large commercial vessels powered with hydrogen-powered fuel cells, based in part on infrastructure issues as well as their huge consumption of fuel. “There are certain niches where it will be very viable,” Brown said. “I think for it to be economically viable – the technology is here now – we’re probably 10 years away.”
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