Clear (and Clean) Sailing

A group of RPI students proves that fuel cells can power a boat up the Hudson River — without any noise or pollution

Like many crazy ideas, this one took shape during happy hour. Last January, Will Gathright and Jason Kumnick, graduate students and Ph.D. candidates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, were having a beer together. Will asked Jason if he’d like to be part of an adventure Will had been conjuring that would be, at worst, pretty cool and, at best, historic.

Gathright is pursuing his doctorate in fuel cell research. Fuel cells turn compressed hydrogen into electricity. The only by-products are heat and pure water. Fuel cells are about as clean an energy producer as you can get, and they work. They are currently in commercial use powering, among other things, light manufacturing equipment such as forklifts. But they are still very expensive. And they have, according to those working on them, a mistaken rep for being dangerous.

Will and his fellow students in RPI’s fuel cell research program naturally spent a lot of time talking about things like this. How could they present the technology to a skeptical public? How could they push the learning curve? How could they tout fuel cells’ vast environmental and economic potential? Gathright had an a-ha moment.

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He’d go for a boat ride.

This year, as we all have been constantly reminded, is the 400th anniversary of two celebrated river explorations, conducted by Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain. Also mentioned in our watery history is Robert Fulton, who in 1807 sailed his paddle steamship, the Clermont, from Manhattan to Albany, thus ushering in the era of steam power. Gathright had been hearing about these men and their exploits, and they mixed in his subconscious — Fulton in particular. “Fulton really used his ship to show that steam power was safe and effective,” Gathright says. “I thought, maybe we could do the same thing for hydrogen. And tie it all in with the Hudson and Champlain anniversary.”

Gathright, 26, grew up in Hawaii and attended Northwestern University in Chicago. “I was an environmentalist at heart, looking at alternative energy sources, and was introduced to fuel cell technology as an undergrad,” he says. “I became passionate about hydrogen energy. It just makes sense to me.”

He came to RPI for, as he calls it, its “world-class fuel cell research.” And he himself is a world-class researcher, having earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Trainee (IGERT) fellowship. He knows that fuel cells work. But he didn’t know if they could power a boat. “I needed a team of people smarter than I am to make it happen,” he says in typically self-deprecating fashion. “I saw my role as more of an integrator.” So he first approached Kumnick, a materials science student — “He’s better at building things than I am,” Gathright says — and asked him to sign on as his first-mate. “I’m Gilligan,” Kumnick says with a wide grin.

From there, it was just a matter of assembling a crew of other students to give of their time and specialized knowledge — for no pay and no course credit, all while trying to further their own studies, which at RPI is no day on a boat. Oh, yeah — it also meant finding a boat. But in no time, Gathright had both.

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New Clermont enginePollution-less power: An interior view of one of the New Clermont’s fuel-cell stacks

The boat, donated anonymously, was a wreck. It’s a 22-foot Bristol sailboat that had been sitting in a field for about seven years. The hull had holes in it. There were wasp nests and mummified fish aboard. But it was the right price: free. Gathright named her the New Clermont, after Fulton’s first steamship.

The crew was in considerably better condition. NSF Fellow Casey Hoffman, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering and also an experienced boater, enlisted to configure the fuel cells to the two propeller engines. He also spent untold hours making the vessel seaworthy. “There were dead things in there,” Hoffman says with a shudder.

Leah Rollhaus, an MBA student, agreed to manage the project, handling scheduling, logistics, donations, sponsorships, publicity and the like. “I grew up in Riverdale, and I love the Hudson River,” she says. “I’ve been talking to groups like Clearwater, the Hudson Riverkeeper, and it has been wonderful. I’ve learned so much about the river.” Other undergrad and graduate students also chipped in, as did Plug Power, the Latham-based fuel cell manufacturer that loaned the group two demo models to power their trip. The two fuel cell “stacks” — four-by-four-by-one-foot black boxes — produce 24 volts per unit. Each is connected to an off-the-shelf outboard motor. The boat can attain speeds of about five knots. With four 250-pound tanks of compressed hydrogen (donated by Airgas, Inc.) onboard, the New Clermont can travel about 60 miles before it needs refueling.

And unlike the original Clermont, which spewed fire and smoke from her stacks as she burned anything she could get her hands on — including driftwood that came down the river — the New Clermont spews only clean water, “cleaner even than the river we sail upon,” Gathright writes in his travel blog.

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And on a river dominated by screaming powerboats and jet skis, there’s another great thing about a fuel cell-powered boat: it’s completely silent. It’s like a floating Prius.

The New Clermont left Manhattan at first light on September 21, hoping to make it to Troy by Friday the 25th. But like many adventures begun at happy hour, things didn’t go quite as planned. On day two, both engines quit powering the motors. The crew lost a total of three days trying to figure out why.

“Devices engineered for one application often don’t play well with others,” Gathright posted on the ship’s blog on day three. “Our fuel cell units work wonderfully in the context of the materials-handling environment, to power the forklifts for which they were designed. The trolling motors we are using are flawless in the typical application attached to marine batteries. But combine the fuel cell units and the motors with some improbably long cables, and the Law of Unintended Consequences takes effect.”

Having to drive back to Troy each day to work things through didn’t help. Plus, “real life set in,” Rollhaus says, in the form of schoolwork and exams, making it harder for them to find time for everything. But by Saturday, the kinks had been worked out. The New Clermont, having docked at Ossining, Beacon, and New Hamburg (twice) along the way, was in Athens as this issue went to press, less than 40 miles from its final destination.

But for those inclined to call the project a bust, consider that the original Clermont, 202 years ago, was hardly a resounding success either. Fulton’s steamship was described in the papers as “a huge monster, vomiting fire and smoke from its throat, lashing the water with its fins, and shaking the river with its roar.” Passing boaters “threw themselves flat on the deck of their vessels, where they remained in an agony of terror until the monster had passed, while others took to their boats and made for the shore in dismay, leaving their vessels to drift helplessly down the stream.”

The fact is, the New Clermont made it — silently, passively, non-monstrously, vomiting only water. So maybe 100 years from now, when future Valley residents are again celebrating the region’s explorers, the names of Hudson, Champlain and Fulton will be joined by another prescient mariner, Gathright.

Of course, he’s thinking of more immediate gains: “If in any small way this trip inspires people to demand cleaner fuel or understand ‘this hydrogen thing is not so scary,’ I would be happy.”


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