September 04, 2011
Batteries And Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Canal Boat Power

A British canal boat has been retrofitted to run off a combination of hydrogen fuel cell and lead acid batteries.

One of the most efficient means of transporting freight is by ship. However, many of the ships sailing today are powered by ageing diesel motors fitted with neither exhaust cleaning equipment nor or modern control systems. Three years ago the University of Birmingham initiated an ambitious trial, converting an old canal barge to use hydrogen fuel. The old diesel motor, drive system and fuel tank were removed and replaced with a high efficiency electric motor, a battery pack for short-term energy supply and a fuel cell with a hydrogen storage system to charge the batteries. In September 2007 the converted boat, the "Ross Barlow", was launched on its maiden voyage on Britain's 3500 km long canal system. Last year the barge made its longest voyage to date, of four days duration and 105 km length, negotiating no less than 58 locks.

No mention of prices for all the replacement drive train parts. Likely the total cost is higher than the costs of diesel engine and diesel fuel. But we can expect declining costs due to advances in battery and hydrogen storage technologies. I'd bet on battery cost reductions before hydrogen storage cost reductions just because of the huge existing volumes in battery markets for phones, tablets, and laptop PCs. Plus, the market for HEV, PHEV, EV cars is growing.

This report puts long term shipping costs in a different light. It would be more practical for canal and river transportation to switch to battery electric and/or hydrogen power than for ocean-going transport to do the same. Canal boats and river boats can stop at many places along the way for recharge using electric power from existing electric power generator plants. Booms along a river or canal could be built fairly cheaply to swing out electric lines to plug into boats or ships to recharge. Ocean-going vessels do not have that option. Though in theory floating electric generator plants (wind, nuclear, or solar) could recharge ships at stations in the middle of the ocean.

The hydrogen storage contained enough hydrogen to generate about 50 kwh of electric power - which is enough to drive a compact electric car about 200 miles (assuming 0.25 kwh/mile). The boat also contained enough lead acid batteries for 47 kwh electric power..

The capacity of the fuel cell was, however insufficient to power the boat directly, so the "Ross Barlow" was also fitted with a 47 kWh buffer battery. Lead acid batteries were used for this purpose since they are low maintenance, low-priced and easy to charge. The weight of the battery pack is of no consequence when used in an inland waterways vessel.

The hydrogen supply for the fuel cell was provided by hydride storage system developed by Empa and partly financed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). This device can store hydrogen with an energy content of 50 kWh, which is equivalent to 20 pressurized gas cylinders each of 10 Liter capacity.

Sounds like the hydride storage system will last for over 1200 refueling cycles.

The reliability and operational lifetime of the metal hydride storage system was tested in the laboratory during its development. In practical terms this means that when used to power the "Ross Barlow", if the ship is assumed to travel 650 km per year through the British canal system, it would need refueling once a month with hydrogen. In this case the hydrogen storage system would have an operating lifetime in excess of 100 years, and would therefore comfortably outlast the useful lifetime of the barge itself.

Do not be misled by the expected 100 years lifetime. If this hydrogen storage system was used for ships that ply big rivers (e.g. ships that travel up and down the Mississippi River) it would be reasonable to expect refuelings on a rate approaching a daily basis. Given that, if the metal hydride storage wears out how much money is saved by recycling it to create new storage containers?

Lead acid battery life would be a concern if used for shipping. One source claims 550 discharge cycles for marine batteries if discharged 50% each time. But if discharged 80% the number of discharge cycles drops in half. Note that even longer lasting lead acid batteries exist which have pure lead plates. Don't know how many discharge cycles they can handle.

As the price of oil goes up and the prices of assorted substitutes go down the ease of our migration away from oil will be determined the price points where each substitute become cheaper than oil for each use.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 September 04 09:42 PM  Energy Transportation

Fat Man said at September 5, 2011 10:28 AM:

No matter how you slice it Hydrogen is ridiculous. Either it is produced by steam reforming natural gas, in which case, you should skip the middleman and just use the NG straight; or it is produced by electrolysis of water, in which case you should skip the middleman and run the system with grid electricity.

For canal boats, it is easy to see a grid powered system. The boats can suck power from the grid via overhead wires, like electrified rail roads, or they can be pulled electric powered tow motors running on a dry land track parralela and adjacent to the canal.

Remember that hydrogen is absurdly hard to store.

Equally ridiculous are fuel cells. The PEM fuel cell is really expensive, partly because it depends on a Pt catalyst. Pt is running ~$1800/oz. or 30K$/kg.

Randall Parker said at September 5, 2011 1:26 PM:

Fat Man,

Agreed about hydrogen. It is a best a long term prospect. Storage costs are too high. I'd like to know what the hydrogen storage containers cost per kwh. I wonder why they think hydrogen is worth including. In particular: How much of the original cost of the hydride storage is recoverable when they get melted down at the end of their service life?

The batteries are going to range in the hundreds of dollars per kwh if lithium. Lower if nickel metal hydride. Lower still if lead acid. Not clear on the relative number of discharge cycles and therefore cost per kwh discharged.

The overhead wires or the parallel dry land track both require more capital investment which can only be justified if the traffic levels on the canal are high enough to get a great amount of use from the capital investment. Otherwise putting batteries on boats makes more sense.

Nick G said at September 5, 2011 2:37 PM:

Large batteries could be recharged at frequent port stops, as used to be done with coal (just as they picked up coal 60 years ago - that's why the US wanted the Philippines military bases, and why they're not needed in the oil era). Let's analyze li-ion batteries: assume 20MW engine power at a cruising speed a speed of 15 knots (17.25 mph) or 20MW auxiliary assistance to a higher speed, and a needed port-to-port range of 2,000 miles (a range that was considered extremely good in the era of coal ships - the average length of a full trip is about 4,500 miles (see chart 8 ). That's 116 hours of travel, and 2,310 MW hours needed. At 200whrs per kg, that's 11,594 metric tons. The Emma Mærsk . has a capacity of 172,990 metric tons, so we'd need about 7% of it's capacity (by weight) to add batteries.

So, li-ion would do. Now it would be more expensive than many alternatives that would be practical in a "captive" fleet like this - many high energy density, much less expensive batteries exist whose charging is very inconvenient, but could be swapped out in an application like this. These include Zinc-air, and others. It should be noted that research continues on batteries with much higher density still, as we see here and here, but existing batteries would suffice.

Here's a hybrid car carrier from (who else?) Toyota.

Nick G said at September 5, 2011 3:12 PM:

The odd thing about this story?

They describe the ship as a "Hydrogen powered prototype vessel for inland waterways", but it's really mostly battery powered: "The batteries supplied 71 per cent of this energy, the hydrogen fuel cell 25 per cent and the solar panel 4 per cent. "

Why not increase the size of the battery by 150%, or swap the batteries once or twice during the trip? Why all this fuss about a hydrogen fuel cell, for which (as Randall notes) we get no cost analysis??

Nick G said at September 5, 2011 10:49 PM:


If we look closely at the source you found for lead-acid discharge characteristics, we find that "most golf cart batteries are rated for about 550 cycles to 50% discharge - which equates to about 2 years." Golf cart batteries aren't deep discharge, marine type batteries. Look at the chart: we see 1,000 cycles at 50% discharge, and 500 cycles at 80% discharge.

Now, if we pay $100/kWh, and get the equivalent of 400 cycles, that's $.25/kWh. That's equivalent to $3.50 diesel fuel at 35% efficiency ($3/(40*.35) = $.25/kWh). There's the power as well, of course, but that would be at industrial night rates - perhaps $.02/kWh - pretty much a rounding error.

AMac said at September 6, 2011 8:16 AM:

> when [the metal hydride storage system is] used to power the "Ross Barlow", if the ship is assumed to travel 650 km per year through the British canal system, it would need refueling once a month with hydrogen.

A ship or barge that travels 650 kilometers in one year? If it's a five-day work week, that's less than 3 km per day.

Unless this is a typo, the authors seem to be setting the performance bar at a really low level.

Randall Parker said at September 6, 2011 7:30 PM:

Nick G,

It seems like the hydrogen fuel cells were more of a gimmick. But I found the report interesting because it got me thinking for the first time about battery-powered ships, especially along coasts and on rivers. I'd never thought much about ships on rivers and coastlines. But if they are always close to land recharging is quite practical.

I'm curious to know how the energy efficiency of Mississippi River cargo ships compare to trains.


Yes, the distances traveled do not seem to make an expensive power train justifiable. But if batteries could be put in ships cruising the US East Coast, the Mississippi, or European rivers and the the Mediterranean then suddenly a large chunk of shipping could be shifted to electric power, with a big reduction in our vulnerability to Peak Oil.

Wolf-Dog said at September 6, 2011 7:43 PM:

Several more economical catalysts are being discovered to make hydrogen from water at a reasonable cost:

Separately, better hydrogen storage tanks are being invented thanks to nanotechnology which allows very porous materials to absorb hydrogen.

Ultimately cheaper hydrogen fuel cells will also be made.

The main obstacle is the oil industry that will do everything possible to slow down the R & D that can lead to the commercialization of electric vehicles.

Bruce said at September 6, 2011 8:22 PM:

"The main obstacle is the oil industry that will do everything possible to slow down the R & D that can lead to the commercialization of electric vehicles."

The main obstacle is that electric vehicles are a waste of money. Someday that may change ... when pigs fly.

Randall Parker said at September 6, 2011 9:49 PM:

Bruce should come out as a supporter of genetic engineering to create flying pigs.

Makes sense when you think about it. Lots of things have been proclaimed possible only when pigs will fly. So the creation of flying pigs would usher in a new era of innovation across many fields.

Nick G said at September 6, 2011 10:48 PM:

if they are always close to land recharging is quite practical.

Heavy-duty commercial fleet applications like this would be unlikely to rely on recharging. Instead, they'd be likely to swap batteries: much faster & modular, just like the containers they carry.

I'm curious to know how the energy efficiency of Mississippi River cargo ships compare to trains.

Water shipping is about 3x as efficient. Similarly, rail is about 3x as efficient as trucking.

But if batteries could be put in (coastal) ships...then suddenly a large chunk of shipping could be shifted to electric power

International shipping worked just fine in the coal era, where each leg might have been 1,000 miles. Batteries could do that easily, as calculated above.

Batteries are competitive costwise, but they won't be widely adopted until they're substantially superior.


JeffC said at September 7, 2011 11:33 AM:

I'll take a nice new modern diesel truck over this any day ... How do you think the cargo gets from the canal to your local store ? or are all the manufacturers and stores along the canal ? this is a nice science experiment that is worse than useless in the real world ...

Why do you think the canals were built in the first place and why did people stop using them ? canal based cargo transportation has been inefficient since the invention of the ICE and trucks using roadways ...

If its green you want then why not horse drawn wagons ?

FuturePundit ? reads more like LudditePundit

JeffC said at September 7, 2011 11:40 AM:

what are the costs per km to operate these barges ? lets see, 1 or 2 barge operators plus 57 lock operators don't seem to be a very efficent way to move anything in todays world at the speeds we are talking about ... build an electric cargo truck that can do some long hauls and the world may beat a path to your door if its priced right ... please remember why the canals where built in the first place and why they are no longer used ... looks like some folks are no learning from history and are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past ...

JeffC said at September 7, 2011 11:47 AM:

no matter how much you may wish it liquid fuels will always be the best source of energy for large cargo ship and vehicles ... period ... anyone that thinks battery technology can be as efficient is simply ignorant of the chemisty and physics ... this is not future thinking this is magical thinking ...

Fred said at September 7, 2011 11:49 AM:

Just a layman weighing in here, with no real experience in the field.


Tell me if I am on track here....couldn't these ships recharge with on-board windmill power, especially the coastal freighters that run just off-shore? Seems like that could reduce (probably not eliminate though) the need for recharges.

I wouldn't want to face a sudden storm in one of these puppies. Gale force winds, 60+ ft seas? I want POWER

Bizman said at September 7, 2011 11:55 AM:

"The weight of the [50kwh lead] battery pack is of no consequence when used in an inland waterways vessel."

Wow. There's a wild assumption. on a BOAT. On water. How much cargo does this battery pack replace?

There is no mention of the cargo capactiy of the boat. Was the boat able to move 10 tons or 100 tons or 1000 tons.

How much did the battery pak weigh?

Bizman said at September 7, 2011 12:08 PM:

The "Ross Barlow" on the other hand produced no CO2 during its voyage, assuming that the hydrogen it used was derived from renewable sources and delivered free of emissions to the refueling point on the bank of the canal.

... assuming it didn't come from a coal plant or deseil generator.
"The diesel engine was replaced by a zero emission propulsion system "

The purpose was to demonstrate that a 1KW hydrogen PEM Fuel Cell would completely fail to power a 10 KW Electric Motor.

Sam Hall said at September 7, 2011 12:42 PM:

Battery powered ship? Right. For ships, time is money so they go fast and they go cheap. For example,The Emma Mærsk uses the Wärtsilä RT-flex96C turbocharged two-stroke diesel engine.
It stands at 13.5 metres (44 ft) high, is 27.3 m (90 ft) long, and weighs over 2300 tonnes in its largest 14-cylinder version — producing 109,000 brake horsepower (80,08 MW).

comatus said at September 8, 2011 8:48 AM:

JeffC is close, but no cigar: you wouldn't use horses for canal boats. Mules are more efficient, and therein lies our shared green pun-ditty future. I knew a muleskinner once, and can only hope that somewhere he's laughing at us.

anonyq said at September 8, 2011 5:54 PM:

If you look at the list of world longest ships than i see 3 ships who are propulsed by electricity.


You get more power if instead of feeding the horses (or mules) hay you would burn it in a steam engine. Dreams about a return to animal powered economy are just dreams

Sam Hall,

Electric propulsion is more reliable than a diesel engine, especially if the power source can be compartmented. The reason why ships aren't battery powered is because batteries don't contain enough energy. If there were batteries that contained enough energy for a safe trip and for which it was true that (batteries + electric engine) weigh of the same order as (diesel engine + fuel) than batteries would win out even if they would be slightly more expensive than oil.
I also would describe the Emma Mærsk slightly different. My version would be. The Emma Mærsk is a hybrid propulsed ship in which the main shaft is powered directly by the Wärtsilä diesel engine and two electric engines who's energy is derived from a steam engine powered by the Wärtsilä exhaust or the Caterpiller generators


British canals are very narrow so such a ship can carry something in the order of a truck load. 50kwh is of the order of 1000 kg which is a lot but not compared with a truck load

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