Hydrogen and Hydrofoils

An America’s Cup chase boat combines hydrogen-electric power with hydrofoils.
Chase Zero prototype boat
Emirates Team New Zealand America’s Cup Emirates Team New Zealand has combined a foiling boat with hydrogen power.

Foiling boats have long proved their merit among sailors, and now they’re gaining a foothold in the powerboat market. However, many of the new, cutting-edge foiled powerboats run off electricity, which vastly limits range.

America’s Cup Emirates Team New Zealand believe they have devised the solution: combining a foiling boat with hydrogen power.

Emirates TNZ needed a chase boat that could keep pace with its America’s Cup foiling catamarans—which can hit speeds of about 57 mph—for more than 100 miles a day. They also wanted a zero-emissions solution. So, they approached Toyota.

Having developed rugged fuel cells for a hydrogen-powered sedan with more than 400 miles of range (the Mirai, currently available in California), Toyota provided the team with a pair of 80 kW hydrogen fuel cells.

Hydrogen cells for creating power
Emma Ambrogi / CC BY-SA 4.0 A pair of 80 kw hydrogen fuel cells converts hydrogen into 400 volts of electricity by passing the gas over a catalyst and combining it with oxygen in a fuel-cell stack.

These cells can convert hydrogen into 400 volts of electricity by passing the gas over a catalyst and combining it with oxygen in a fuel-cell stack. The stack is a series of cells with an anode, a cathode and a polymer electric membrane. Hydrogen runs by the anode, where a platinum-cobalt catalyst helps split the hydrogen molecules into charged protons and electrons. The protons then pass through the membrane, while the electrons are channeled into a separate circuit, creating an electric charge before the protons and electrons combine with oxygen to create water. Other than heat, that water is the system’s only byproduct.

This hydrogen system feeds a total of 160 kW to twin 220 kW (approximately 295 hp) electric motors that spin a pair of Mercury Racing drives integrated into the foils of the 33-foot catamaran chase boat. Dubbed Chase Zero, the vessel weighs 10,580 pounds and can run at about 35 mph.

Since that doesn’t quite hit the speed mark the team needed, the crew blended a pair of 42 kWh battery banks into the system. When they need the extra speed to keep up with their America’s Cup boat, they can hit the throttles and battery power kicks in, taking top-end speeds into the upper 50s while achieving the necessary 100-plus-mile range. Bonus: The system feeds excess hydrogen-generated electricity back to the batteries, recharging them when the extra speed isn’t needed.

Chase Zero being lowered from the dock
Emirates Team New Zealand This experimental prototype delivers among the best performance and range statistics of any green-powered boat on the water today.

Chase Zero is a one-off boat built for a specific purpose, and because its foils don’t retract, it faces many of the same drawbacks that have troubled this design in the powerboat marketplace. Draft, for example, is a sailboatlike 7 feet, 2 inches.

And of course, you can’t exactly pull up to the fuel dock at the marina and press the H button to fill up with hydrogen—yet. But this experimental prototype delivers among the best performance and range statistics of any green-powered boat on the water today.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire project: Emirates Team New Zealand announced its intention last June; less than a year later, this past April, Chase Zero hydrogen-foiled across Waitemata Harbor in Auckland.

Considering the potential for a marriage between today’s electric powerboats, like the Candela C-8 with its innovative retractable foils and the tech in Chase Zero, the zero-emissions future of boating might be here a lot sooner than the average ­gas-guzzler could imagine.

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