Possibly the future of green energy: a catamaran that became the first boat in the world to produce hydrogen out at sea using just the power of the wind

A British start-up has designed technology that can generate storable energy on seagoing vessels. Ben Spencer discusses recent developments in an article on The Times website.


Hydrogen ahoy! Water-splitting yacht creates green energy as it sails

The catamaran skimming over the waves off the Essex coast looks like something a particularly enthusiastic sailor might race at weekends. But this cutting-edge carbon-fibre sailboat, whose wing-like hydrofoils lift it above the water, is, potentially, the future of green energy.

A little over a week ago it became the first boat in the world to produce hydrogen out at sea using just the power of the wind.

Racing along at speeds of up to 25 knots (just under 30mph) spins a propeller beneath the waves, which in turn drives a turbine and produces electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

On an overcast day off Brightlingsea, a two-hour test run filled a six-litre storage tank with clean, green hydrogen; the only by-product was oxygen, which was vented. The boat actually produced so much electricity that, if the tank had been bigger, it could have made 60 litres of hydrogen, sufficient to charge between 10 and 20 mobile phones.

That, of course, is not a lot of power. But in a bigger boat, with a bigger tank, on a longer voyage, the technology could generate much more. And while the test used a pre-filled tank of water as a source for electrolysis, in future it will use sea water, which will be pumped aboard and desalinated first.

Ben Medland, founder and chief executive of Drift Energy, the Hertfordshire-based start-up behind the project, said this is just the start. “We are thrilled to have produced the world’s first green hydrogen from a hydrofoil sailboat. We knew from computer modelling that our concept had huge potential. [But] these first sea trials prove our energy yachts work in the real world. We are delivering the world’s first mobile, renewable energy class.”

Having proven the concept works with an 18ft (5.5m) racing boat, the company wants to replicate the process within a year on a yacht up to 130ft long, which would be capable of producing 250,000 litres or more of hydrogen per hour. Medland wants to have flotillas of unmanned energy yachts sailing the world’s oceans. “We see ourselves as delivering green hydrogen to any port anywhere in the world,” he said.

Hydrogen is seen as an essential part of the shift to a decarbonated world. It can be used as a way to store energy — by using electricity to produce hydrogen then burning it later to produce power — or to power ships, lorries, trains or aircraft. Eventually, it may be used in boilers to heat homes. Medland said his energy yachts could be used to refuel massive hydrogen-powered container ships out at sea, or to deliver hydrogen to offshore tankers or to ports, to be transported inland.

But why not just use established technology such as solar or wind to power the creation of green hydrogen?

Drift says its approach is much more efficient, because its boats can follow the wind, rather than waiting for the wind to come to them. The “secret ingredient” to achieving this efficiency, the company said, is artificial intelligence. Drift has teamed up with the London-based AI firm Faculty to plot routes around the Atlantic with the best wind conditions.

Using such an algorithm — which uses weather forecasts and sea conditions to change course in real time — Faculty has calculated a seven-day voyage from New York to Penzance would produce a load factor (the proportion of time the boat is producing maximum energy) of 72.5 per cent. In comparison, a stationary offshore wind farm, which only produces energy when the wind blows in its precise direction, has a load factor of 39 per cent. Onshore wind farms produce a load factor of 26 per cent and UK solar farms about 9 per cent.

Medland said: “Our vessels allow us to generate energy in the so-called Goldilocks wind zones — where the wind is just right — on the world’s oceans and then deliver it to wherever it is needed. It is very exciting.”

Andy Perry, director of energy transition and environment at Faculty, said: “The UK needs radical new ways to generate clean green energy if it is to reach net zero by 2050. Using AI to find the best sailing route to generate the most power in the shortest time means this new renewable energy class can make a meaningful contribution to the energy transition to a low-carbon future.”

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