I’ve lived aboard for 14 years and my list of what makes this life so special is extensive - the peace, the wildlife and the inclusive community of fellow boaters all rate pretty highly. I’ll bet they are sitting somewhere near the top of your list too. But, let’s be honest, there are some aspects of living aboard which wouldn’t even qualify.
Most of us know that feeling when, late on a winter evening, the water pump starts to make a deeper, slower tone as you brush your teeth. Your heart sinks as you wonder whether the batteries will lose voltage before morning and the fridge will start to defrost or whether you’ll need a torch to get dressed tomorrow. In these moments the choice is either to cross your fingers and anxiously hope for the best or put off sleep while you lug out the generator and charge the batteries for an hour or so. Those of us living afloat have always had to be conscious of our electricity usage. It’s fine if you have an electric hook-up facility as part of your mooring rental, but those of us who are continuously cruising or renting an off-grid mooring are limited to the power they can generate themselves.
I got myself some solar panels when I first moved aboard and they worked great during the summer - free power from the sun to keep my batteries topped up between biweekly boat moves. But in winter it was a different story. Basically, unless you have a solar installation the size of a small field and live on a very frugal power budget, you have to idle the engine or run the generator to create domestic power a few times every week. As well as the hassle, I was also unhappy at the amount of local diesel pollution I was creating and was conscious of annoying the neighbours (afloat and land-livers) with the noise. The only consolation was knowing that my boating neighbours were wrestling with the same problem, so we could give each other some slack if the generator occasionally came out at an unsocial hour.
As an Engineer I am always keen to create solutions, to do my bit, however small, to make things better. For more than 30 years I have worked in the UK rail industry. My projects include adopting new technology, reducing environmental impact, and improving efficiency. In the midst of exploring hydrogen and its possible applications for trains, I set about applying the skills I use in my day job to the problem of domestic power in my home life.
Hydrogen and fuel cells have long been used in industrial, scientific and specialist applications, and I was sure there was a way to harness their potential to provide power on my boat. I set about connecting the dots and created the prototype ‘HyArk’, named for the fact that it’s a vessel and that hydrogen molecules flow into the fuel cell two by two!
Very quickly I noticed a huge difference. As the sun got lower and more distant towards the latter part of the year I found myself switching on the HyArk instead of lugging my generator out onto the towpath or starting my engines up. Because it was virtually silent (a tiny puff of hydrogen is emitted into the sky every now and then) I could sleep peacefully through the night knowing that in the morning my fridge would still be cold, my water would flow, and I would have light to ensure I was wearing a harmonious pair of socks for work. It was extraordinary - no noise, no pollution (the fuel cell emits only water) and in addition less wear and tear on my engine plus battery life was extended too.
Having lived with this prototype for two years I worked with designers to create a model which is both good-looking and practical. It was an exciting time, sourcing expert craftspeople and networking with other innovators in the hydrogen field. We added a remote on/off switch for the cabin and configured an ‘auto’ mode which means that the HyArk works seamlessly with solar panels, backing off when the sun is shining and switching itself on when the voltage starts dropping. As hydrogen must be well-ventilated and therefore on the roof, much attention was focused on the design of the casing. The outer unit is made from a tough resin infused polyester material, designed to be both robust and light weight. Made by a small team of boat builders in Falmouth who are used to crafting yachts from this material, it’s ergonomically designed to ensure low branches and ropes can glide smoothly over it.
There are a small number of very low bridges in the canal and rivers network, so it was vital that the unit can be easily removed and carried along the towpath, along with anything else up there such as chimney stacks and bikes. And for security the unit has high quality German locks and hinges, along with a vigorous fire-proofing system. The HyArk can even be vinyl wrapped to match the colours of your boat.
In some ways the HyArk has come a little too early, before there is a canal-side infrastructure ready to supply hydrogen at a price comparable to or lower than LPG. Currently retail hydrogen is only available from BOC Linde’s Gas and Gear shops and as such, is relatively expensive. However, there are other suppliers getting ready to enter the market with green hydrogen and it’s like the proverbial chicken and egg - demand creates supply but also supply creates demand. We need a few early adopters, like myself, to innovate and create the demand and this will in turn increase supply of hydrogen, making it much more accessible for everyone. Once an infrastructure is in place the potential to use hydrogen for boat propulsion will be a reality and we will be able to say goodbye to diesel for good.
More than 250 years ago the canals were early adopters of cutting-edge technologies of that time. As one of the first ‘leisure’ applications of hydrogen technology perhaps in some small way we are now continuing that tradition? If you want to learn more about our product or discuss joining us in the green hydrogen revolution, please visit our website at hydrogenafloat.com.
We are a small company harnessing the ecological benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology to create domestic power without pollution and noise. As liveaboard boaters, we know the importance of reliable onboard power all year round. We integrate hydrogen fuel cells and their gas storage into a system that can easily be installed onto a narrowboat, wide-beam or inland waterway cruiser.