Today, I had an interesting discussion with Nick Swift, Founder of Hydrogen Afloat, a 2-year-old company that is offering hydrogen power solutions for boats.
Lhyfe Heroes: How did you have this idea of using hydrogen for boats?
I’ve been living on a boat for more than 15 years. When you live on a boat all year long, you need to generate electricity to live by, electricity to power the lights, the fridge, the TV and radio. I tried to imagine an ecofriendly solution to replace running my diesel engine when stationary, which is both noisy and polluting. Whilst looking for alternatives, I came across small hydrogen fuel cells and developed a system to integrate such a fuel cell onto the roof of my boat. I had to make sure that it was safe and well-integrated into the design of my boat.
It worked so well that I thought other people should benefit from the technology and the idea. That’s when I decided to set up Hydrogen Afloat.
L.H.: So, what is the product of Hydrogen Afloat?
We make a product called “HyArk”. It is a hydrogen fuel cell solution to generate domestic power on boats. We do domestic power now because we can do this NOW, using portable hydrogen cylinders. There is no hydrogen infrastructure on the canals and rivers, no filling stations, so we must use portable cylinders. By creating demand, the infrastructure will be developed, then we’ll be able to use filling stations.
There are lots of people talking about hydrogen (many conferences, events, papers, …) but when you look for people doing things, there are not so many. That is what Hydrogen afloat is all about: we have a product that is available now and that people can use in their daily lives.
L.H.: How do you see this initiative growing?
In time, we will get to the point where there will be a network for supplying people with hydrogen, then we will look at hydrogen for propulsion, instead of using diesel to drive the boat along. We need to start with the small things! Of course, we need large-scale industrial hydrogen projects, but I think the small scale is also important: we cannot go from “zero to hero” overnight. We are getting hydrogen out into the community. Lots of people see the equipment on the boat on the Kennet and Avon canal, between London and Bristol. For many people, this is the first time they have seen a hydrogen fuel cell. We have many questions asked, so we get the chance to explain what it is and why we use it. We are raising the general awareness about hydrogen and net zero solutions.
L.H.:For now, who are you targeting with this offer?
In the UK, there are 7.500 km of canals and rivers and around 35,000 individuals living on boats. These people are already using propane gas on their boats for cooking and heating and many are genuinely concerned by the environmental and air quality. They want to adopt new technology to find suitable solutions to respond this concern.
L.H.: What is the concrete impact of one fuel cell on one boat?
The hydrogen we are using is grey hydrogen, made from fossil fuel. This is the only hydrogen that is available in the UK at the moment. The benefits are therefore around local air quality and the fact the equipment works automatically, turning on when the batteries on the boat need charging. The carbon benefits arrive when we move to locally produced green hydrogen, hydrogen made from renewable resources. Then we get to a true zero-carbon power solution. We estimate we save around 20 litres of diesel per year, which is around 50kg of C02, plus the wear and tear on the engine and the noise it creates. Our fuel cell system is nearly silent when working.
L.H.: What type of challenges have you met?
The price of the molecule is still high, compared to the alternatives, but I’m confident cheaper hydrogen will come soon.
Regarding the installation, integrating the HyArk fuel cell unit into the boat, while respecting its design was difficult: we wanted to keep the traditional style of a British narrow boat, but also show this is an innovative new technology. Finding the space on the boat is also a challenge. In the UK, some canal bridges are very low, so our solution had to be removable and light weight in case you need to go under such a bridge.
And finally, there are no regulations in place for this “domestic application” on a “transport system” so we had to develop the safety arrangements from first principles and we tend not to be eligible for any grants.
But every challenge is an opportunity, isn’t it?
L.H.: In conclusion, what’s your vision for hydrogen in the UK market?
I think we have lost some of the lead that the UK used to have in the energy transition. However, we still have a lot of innovative technologies developed in the UK. A recent announcement of over £200 million to launch a fleet of zero emission heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will accelerate plans to decarbonise road freight. That will help the hydrogen market grow in the UK, which should help us with hydrogen supply.
Hopefully, in some small part, we at Hydrogen Afloat will be doing our bit to help the energy transition, addressing some of the challenges of climate change.