Tracing Fulton’s footsteps with hydrogen

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Students take a converted Bristol 22 from New York City up the Hudson River to Albany

In 1909 innovator Robert Fulton took Clermont, the first commercially successful steamboat, on her maiden voyage 160 miles up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, N.Y.

Rensselear Polytechnic Institute students cruised from New York City to Albany, N.Y., aboard the hydrogen fuel cell-powered New Clermont.

By the end of the 32-hour trip, Fulton had proven the value of steam power and effectively jump-started the age of steam.

Two hundred years later, a team of nine students calling themselves “New Clermont Project” recreated Fulton’s journey, but by using hydrogen rather than steam power.

“Just as Fulton sought to prove the feasibility of steam power to the world, the New Clermont Project aims to prove the viability of green, pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells as a power source,” the group writes on its Web site.

The project was spearheaded by Will Gathright, a doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. whose focus is fuel cell research. He brought aboard other Rensselaer students to fill out the team.

“I heard about the project in January and it interested me on a couple of levels,” says Leah Rollhaus, who is pursuing her master’s degree in business administration at RPI. “The sustainability aspect I am passionate about … and I grew up on the Hudson in the Bronx, so that was one more thing I connected with.”

Rollhaus became managing director of the New Clermont Project, getting the word out. Casey Hoffman, who is a doctoral candidate studying fuel-cell electrode manufacturing — and who also happens to be an avid boater — came on board last spring as one of the captains.

The group also found its boat in the spring. A donor offered the group a Bristol 22 — a Halsey Herreshoff-designed monohull aft-cockpit fiberglass sloop. Though the boat had been sitting in a field for the last 10 years, Hoffman says he was ready for a challenge. “Being a fisherman, I was up for a restoration project for a good cause,” says Hoffman.

From Bristol to green

The Clermont team unstepped the mast since they would not be using wind power for the voyage, then they started on the necessary repairs, such as patching holes in the hull and ripping out a good chunk of the interior that had been a home to bees and yellow jackets for many years.

“Inside there were cabinets and an old non-functioning head that, with the owner’s permission, we tore out of there because we were going to need the space,” says Hoffman. “The wooden floor inside the cabin that sits on top of the keel was all water damaged and rotten, and needed to be replaced to properly support and distribute the weight of the fuel cells.”

As for the power, twin electric Minn Kota trolling motors were the base for their hydrogen power. Plug Power, a company that specializes in hydrogen energy, donated two fuel cells for each motor.

The fuel cells generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, though hydrogen is the primary input into the fuel cell. The only exhaust is water vapor, the group explains on its Web site. Electricity from the fuel cell stack powers an electric motor that, in turn, drives the boat.

“When handled properly, hydrogen is as safe, if not safer, than the gasoline in your car,” according to the group’s site. “A variety of methods have been developed for the safe collection and storage of hydrogen.”

The method used to store the hydrogen aboard the New Clermont was four hydrogen storage canisters that would be refueled several times along the course of the trip. The canisters and the gas were donated by Airgas, a national distributor.

Between funding from the institute and their own personal fund-raising, Hoffman estimates their total amount raised was less than $20,000 to cover all of the costs incurred with the project.

The fuel cells were connected to the hydrogen tanks, and the system produced electricity, heat and water.

“We enjoyed the heat because it could get pretty chilly out there some evenings, says Hoffman. “And the water was perfectly clean so we stored it for drinking.”

The team packed cell phones, life jackets, a raft, flares and a VHF radio for safety.

With the modified motors aboard and the repairs made, the crew departed Sept. 21 from New York City. However, on the second day their motors died near Beacon, N.Y.

“More power was being supplied to the electric motors than there should have been,” says Hoffman. Plug Power supplied them with an alternate motor control and, three days later, the trip resumed its course using a 60-amp electric motor drive rated for 24 volts. This meant better control over the flow of electricity to the motors so as to avoid overloading them, he says.

Every night the team would switch off crew at different ports, although Hoffman was on the boat through most of the trip. They successfully completed their trip Oct. 2 when they arrived in Albany.

“We got a lot more press than we expected,” says Hoffman. “We were on the local news, and Scientific American followed us. It was great to come into marinas and have people recognize us.”

For Rollhaus, the MBA student and managing director, the project gave her a chance to not only be a part of a cause she was passionate about, but another view of the Hudson River she had seen only from the shoreline.

“I felt the majestic beauty of the Hudson,” says Leah. “And to know we were navigating the river using totally clean power was a neat feeling.”

Is hydrogen power the next big thing for boats? Hoffman says it’s a possibility, but there’s a long way to go.

“It would be pretty hard for most people to have hydrogen delivered to them at the marina,” says Hoffman. “But the point is, we were able to actually do it, even if we hit a snag. We got the word out and that’s what’s important. I hope we can do something like this again in the future.”

For information, visit www.newclermont.org.

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the December 2009 issue.

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