Students to Sail Hydrogen Powered Boat
A group of bright young Rensselaer students will soon take up the Hudson River, but with a difference. They are using a boat driven by clean and green hydrogen fuel. Their boat is the 22-foot New Clermont looked after by a three member crew. It is fitted with a pair of 2.2-kilowatt fuel cell units.
William Gathright who is the doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellow who is also pursuing a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer’s Lally School of Management & Technology shares his views, “At its core, the New Clermont Project is about awareness. It’s a fun way to teach people about hydrogen energy. We’re high-tech environmentalists. We want to share our vision of a time when people can take a pleasure cruise on their boat, or drive to the store, without leaving a trail of pollution and toxins behind them. We hope to inspire and challenge them to think of ways of making that vision a reality.”
Their journey had begun from Pier 84 in Manhattan on September 21 and cruise at a cool 6 mph to arrive in Troy on the evening of September 25. They are planning several stops so that they can show off their precious pollution free possession to others and interact with the like minded people. They will also showcase the environmental and economic advantages involved in using hydrogen as a fuel. The project and boat also pay tribute to the world’s first commercial steamboat, the Clermont by captain Robert Fulton two hundred years ago. Incidentally the project coincides with Henry Hudson’s historic trek up 400 years ago, resulting in the river being names the Hudson River. Leah Rollhaus , a Lally School MBA student related with the project says, “Just as Robert Fulton wanted to prove to the world that steam was a viable, economical means to power boats and unleash the economic potential of our waterways, we want to open people’s eyes to the viability of hydrogen and fuel cells as a way to power boats, and one day maybe even our cars, trucks, and homes.” We can safely conclude that the New Clermont Project also makes a fine statement regarding American creativity and the rich technological history of New York State and the Hudson River.
Gathright is the main force behind this project. He brought a volunteer team of undergraduate and graduate students from a wide spectrum of academic disciplines under one umbrella. The interesting thing is New Clermont team members are not getting any course credit for the project but what can compensate for the feeling that in your own way you are doing something worthwhile for the environment.
Gathright talks about his team members, “This project, from beginning to end, has certainly been an exercise in creative problem solving. But you know what? We’re Rensselaer students. Innovating and problem solving is what we do best.” Gathright concentrated on building a sound team for his project. He ensured that his team is well represented by students from various disciplines and expertise such as materials science, engineering, electrical and systems engineering, management, and communications. They started humbly. They only had a forgotten, neglected vessel to start with. Gathright affectionately renamed it as the New Clermont. The 40-year-old sailboat is a Bristol 22, sometimes called a Bristol Caravel, and measures 22 feet from aft to bow.
They had to prepare their boat in its recent avatar by sheer grit and hard work. The steps were usual like maintenance, cleansing away two decades of soot, stains, dust and major repairs etc. Gathright and his team utilized their engineering skills to prepare the New Clermont to embrace and hold up a pair of fuel cell units. The units, included GenDrive class 3 systems credited by the students from Latham, N.Y.-based fuel cell developer Plug Power. They weigh around 500 pounds and carry the dimensions of three feet by three feet. These units were transported on the homemade mounts of the New Clermont by crane.
Fuel cell units of the New Clermont’s use compressed hydrogen gas. The fuel cell systems also contain a special membrane. This membrane is useful in separating the hydrogen into electrons and protons. The membrane allows the protons to pass through it. Electrons travel in a circuit for creating electricity. When electrons and protons come out of the membrane, they are exposed to oxygen from the ambient air; this exposure produces water and a small amount of heat. The icing on the cake is this electrochemical process is completely pollution-free.