Emirates Team New Zealand’s use of Christchurch company AFCryo’s hydrogen fuel production technology to power its support boats at the next America’s Cup regatta may be costly up-front but will pay dividends in the future, says the team’s lead designer Dan Bernasconi.
AFCryo’s technology was profiled by NBR just last month, noting applications for its uses as diverse as artificial insemination and semiconductors. But a key growth market is in reliably and safely producing zero-emission ‘green’ hydrogen fuel at 75% of the cost of a popular alternative.
The ETNZ America’s Cup winning team announced this week it would use AFCryo’s hydrogen production technology to power support boats for the next regatta. It is keen to promote green hydrogen as a feasible future fuel for the marine industry via the regatta, which has come to embody an innovation showcase as much as a sailing race over many years.
Once launched and verified, and with the support of the next Challenger of Record, Ineos Team UK, hydrogen-powered support boats may be specified in the protocol for the 37th America’s Cup.
Such a protocol would also apply to the 20-plus event and race support boats, which will considerably reduce fossil fuel consumption across the event.
Team New Zealand is so far funding the development programme itself, but “will certainly be looking for sponsors to partner with us,” said Bernasconi, who has participated in five America’s Cups.
“Part of the reason there aren’t a lot of hydrogen-powered small craft around is because it’s an early-stage technology and, like any sort of early adoption, it’s expensive to start with,” he said.
“Until you get the economies of scale, you are paying a premium but I think that’s something we’re happy to invest in.”
Asked how much would be invested in the programme and the relative cost uplift from previous campaigns, a spokesperson said Team NZ was “still working through the budget implication and until the prototype has proved fit for purpose have not considered further build options yet”.
The partnership has benefits for AFCryo. Aside from the revenue and the promotion of the technology via such a high-profile partnership, the company is looking forward to testing its technology on the hydrofoil-based watercraft that ETNZ is designing.
The boats will give AFCryo insight, not only into how hydrogen fuel cells can be adopted on water, but also in the sky, company technical director Hugh Reynolds said.
“The package that Dan and the ETNZ team are trying to put together is of a high specification, so we’re looking at this and thinking it gives the opportunity to act as a test-bed for future aircraft powertrains, and to be able to test that in a lot safer environment.
“So, on the one hand, it’ll allow us to drag automotive car trains up, and it also allow us to test aircraft systems in a safe environment.”
(For the record, AFCryo is already well down the track of applying its cryogenic technology to development of aircraft motors, Reynolds said.)
The cost dynamic is the same with any renewable energy source, Reynolds noted, where the initial outlay on infrastructure – such as a hydro-dam – leads to much lower cost and efficiency down stream.
It’s early days for Team New Zealand, though, Bernasconi said. His team has done an initial concept design and developed the first models accounting for the weight, size and efficiency of the hydrogen engines, showing the length of time each boat would be able to stay active.
Having decided it’s “completely feasible”, his team is now getting into the detailed design of the powertrain, for which he said it would be “very likely” that more New Zealand-based partners would be used, he said.
“The stage that we’re getting into now is starting to talk to potential suppliers, and with AFCryo assisting that process. So we’ll be, over the next two to three months, identifying exactly which components we’re going to use, how they’re going to fit together and, I think, it’s very likely we will engage other partners in New Zealand in the process.”
As for the AC75 America’s Cup class racing boat itself, the weight and cost of the hydrogen fuel cell may prohibit its use on board.
Currently, the AC75 uses about 50kg of batteries to power motors that drive the hydraulic pumps to raise and lower the foils. The batteries also power foil flap movements, rudder adjustments and instrumentation systems.
The batteries need to be changed two or three times a day, when training, Bernasconi said.
“Now there is potential for a small hydrogen fuel cell providing a better option there, but we need to look into the feasibility of that.”
Back on shore, Reynolds said AFCryo has estimated one of its 40-foot container-based hydrogen production systems would provide enough fuel for 10 chase boats per day.
In a good sign for the use of hydrogen at the 37th America’s Cup, wherever that regatta may be held, the announcement has been welcomed by Ineos Team UK skipper Sir Ben Ainslie, who said: “With so much investment in hydrogen across the world, shifting to foiling chase boats, powered by hydrogen could well prove to be a sustainable and practical solution for the future of the marine industry, while supporting the AC75’s which are reaching speeds in excess of 50 knots.”