A research team led by Sandia National Laboratories has discovered a way to power research ships with zero-emission hydrogen. Studies show that the hydrogen-powered engine could effectively replace commonly used diesel engines, to provide pollutant-free maritime transportation.

Though hydrogen-powered watercraft have existed for decades, the technology was reserved for smaller vessels, such as pleasure craft. But a Sandia report released this week shows it is technically and economically feasible to build a larger, faster, hydro-powered boat in a manner consistent with marine regulations.

Sandia’s proposed Zero-V hydro-powered research vessel offers the advantage of pollution-free oceanic exploration. Since hydrogen rises on its own, eventually escaping into outer space, Sandia chemist and project lead Lennie Klebanoff says it is impossible to have a polluting hydrogen spill on the water.

“If you’re working in a sensitive ecological area and you spill liquid hydrogen there, the fuel not only removes itself from this environment, it removes itself from the planet,” Klebanoff said.

The Zero-V project evolved from earlier Sandia work on the SF-BREEZE, a hydrogen-powered passenger ferry designed to operate in the San Francisco Bay. It was the first project that looked at both technical and economic feasibility of powering large commercial boats with hydrogen.

“Until we did the SF-BREEZE, very few people thought you could power a real ship, a business venture, on hydrogen fuel cell power,” said Joe Pratt, who led Sandia’s SF-BREEZE project. “In addition to proving it was technically possible, we had to show that it would pencil out economically, so that it would have a chance of going out into the marketplace.”

The SF-BREEZE accommodates 150 passengers on four 50-mile round trips in the San Francisco Bay daily, traveling at a top speed of 35 knots. The ferry’s design elements were adapted for the Zero-V.

“Instead of going fast for short periods and carrying a lot of people, the research vessel goes slower for much longer distances, carries fewer people and must allow the operation of sensitive scientific instrumentation,” Klebanoff said.

The team designed the Zero-V using proven, commercially available hydrogen technology so they could be sure it would work. Once completed, the vessel design was reviewed by DNV GL and the U.S. Coast Guard. Both regulatory bodies independently came to the same conclusion: There are no “show-stopping” technical issues with the design.

But for now, the Zero-V is just a plan waiting to happen as researchers seek the funding to build it. Compared to diesel-powered research vessels, the Zero-V has a similar capital cost, but would cost roughly 7 percent more to operate and maintain.