First methanol fuel cell towboat scheduled for 2023 delivery

Hydrogen One, shown in a lifelike rendering.
Hydrogen One, shown in a lifelike rendering.
Hydrogen One, shown in a lifelike rendering.

Maritime Partners will build the world’s first methanol fuel cell towboat in collaboration with a new joint venture called e1 Marine.  

The future Hydrogen One will be powered through a system that converts methanol and water into pure hydrogen. That hydrogen will run through fuel cells, creating electricity to propel the vessel’s motors. Batteries will provide additional boost power while underway or hotel power when tied up at the dock. 

Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle designed the 90-by-43-foot Hydrogen One, which will have a range of roughly 550 miles while pushing two barges. Delivery is tentatively scheduled for late 2023.

Hydrogen One will be powered by a methanol fuel cell propulsion system.
Hydrogen One will be powered by a methanol fuel cell propulsion system.

Maritime Partners, a vessel lessor based in Metairie, La., is developing the towboat through a partnership with Ardmore Shipping of Ireland, and Element 1 of Bend, Ore. 

Austin Sperry, president of Maritime Partners, said in a recent interview that the vessel meets the market demand for propulsion that generates less harmful emissions. 

“As we look at our red-flag cargo customers … and the pressures they are under by the big oil majors to decarbonize the shipping space, we decided we wanted to be drivers of this transition and not sit back and be passengers,” Sperry said.

Methanol is a lower-carbon fuel that has both a high energy and high hydrogen density. It is used in numerous products already, including plastics, paints and cosmetics. Towboats routinely move methanol on U.S. inland waterways, and it is available at most large ports. 

Hydrogen One is the first methanol-to-hydrogen towboat project in the world. It relies on Element 1’s methanol-to-hydrogen generator technology that converts methanol and water into pure hydrogen. Hydrogen generators, also known as methanol reformers, are roughly the size of a large refrigerator laying sideways. They produce hydrogen on demand at the point of consumption. 

The methanol fuel reforming process converts liquid methanol and water to syngas and then extracts the hydrogen to produce hydrogen pure enough for the fuel cells, according to Robert Schluter, managing director of e1 Marine. “The remaining hydrogen-depleted gas composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is then combusted to create the heat energy needed for the fuel reforming process,” he said. 

That process generates less carbon dioxide (CO2) than a traditional diesel engine, and zero sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides or particulate matter,” he continued. “And it has a zero-emission, renewable energy future just like green hydrogen.”

The current design for Hydrogen One calls for 12 M18 reformers built by RIX Industries of California. They will supply hydrogen for eight 200-kW fuel cells. Electricity from those fuel cells will power electric motors atop Thrustmaster L-drives located at the stern. 

System output is equivalent to about 1,600 hp, while lithium-ion batteries will bring total output to 2,000 hp. The fuel cells will be capable of powering the towboat and recharging batteries. Those batteries, with an estimated 1,325-kWh capacity, can provide zero-emission shoreside power for up to 24 hours.

The towboat’s 550-mile range makes it capable of pushing two loaded tank barges between New Orleans and Houston, according to Michael Complita, principal in charge of Elliott Bay Design Group. He said the general design and the propulsion system can be scaled up or down based on an operator’s power demands.  

ABB will provide key integration support for the vessel, including power management and distribution technology. Its system will direct electrical power from the fuel cells to where it is needed, when it is needed. 

Designing the vessel for a methanol-to-hydrogen propulsion system required some creative thinking. While its design is reminiscent of a traditional inland pushboat, the 43-foot beam is wider than normal to accommodate standalone water and methanol tanks below decks. 

The vessel does not have a traditional machinery space. The batteries and ABB electrical system will be housed on the main deck, while the reformers and fuel cells will be stored on a second deck, aft of the deckhouse. 

“This is a clean-sheet design,” Complita said in a recent interview. “It will be a continual evolution as we finalize selecting the right batteries and fuel cell technology.”

Sperry credited Maritime Partners CEO Bick Brooks and analysts Jack Nash and Troy Bernier for pushing the company to pursue the Hydrogen One project. Sperry said some key details still must be worked out, including the shipyard that will build the towboat. 

“I will tell you I am going to keep it in Louisiana,” he said. “We raise our families here, we are in New Orleans, and we want to keep it here and help the state move forward.”

Current timelines suggest the vessel will be finished and ready for charter in 2023. “We don’t have a customer circled on this,” Sperry said, “but the conversations we have had so far have been very, very positive.”