Driving to zero: How the yacht industry is using tech to fight climate change

The yachting world is experimenting with clean propulsion technology. While a truly zero-emissions future is some way off, technological advances in the shipping and automotive industries may ultimately help the yacht world do its part to fight climate change

author icon By Ryan Swift | 3 June 2021

earth 300For thousands of years, boating was green. Powered by paddles, oars and the wind, boats and ships travelled everywhere with little trace. Then came the engines and their greenhouse gas emissions, to which the world is now frantically turning its attention.

Yacht builders and designers are turning to electrification and alternative fuels to take over the role of diesel engines and generators.

Giovanna Vitelli, executive vice president of Azimut-Benetti Group, the world’s largest yacht builder, says that the yacht industry should look to the auto industry and the advancement of electric vehicles. Speaking to Asia-Pacific Boating, she says that electrification of yachting will be the first step to zero emissions, followed by hydrogen propulsion solutions.

R&D spending by the auto industry on electrification and battery technology will dictate how the yacht industry is able to move forward. Vitelli says that Azimut-Benetti Group’s R&D department works in partnership with universities in Genoa and Turin for their automotive expertise.

Vitelli says that an all-electric Azimut yacht is already being researched, but that there are several other factors to consider, including preparing marinas with charging stations. The current costs currently associated with electric propulsion mean it can only emerge as a niche market.

The new Sunreef 80 Power will have solar PV cells built into the fbreglass

The new Sunreef 80 Power will have solar PV cells built into the fibreglass

During a Metstrade panel discussion in December last year, Sunseeker CEO Andrea Frabetti said that the main thing owners were looking for was not sustainability, but the benefits of sustainability. He estimated that just 5% of his buyers were interested in sustainability solutions on their own. Electrification of systems means quieter running, less exhaust and cleaner surroundings while at anchor. New hybrid systems that allow a battery bank to be charged while a diesel engine is running make boating a cleaner, more pleasant experience.

Yet, yacht builders are already facing the start of legislation aimed at reducing emissions. The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Tier 3 rules, which regulate nitrogen oxide emissions, were introduced in 2016. IMO is already demanding the decarbonisation of the shipping sector; prompting ship owners and shipping companies to review the future of the fuels used in shipping, and perhaps in superyachts as well.

The biggest names in commercial shipping are finally showing their hand – Sam Chambers

“The biggest names in commercial shipping are finally showing their hand,” says Sam Chambers, a shipping journalist and founder of the industry news website Splash 24/7. “In the space of the last five or six months, the biggest names around have all come out with the fuels that they see as realistic, and their own commitments to ensure that there are the supplies for them. And those fuels are ammonia, hydrogen and methanol.”

“So much development is going on for these fuels and it’s happening so fast,” says Chambers, who says that liquefied natural gas (LNG) was discussed as a future fuel back in 2005, although LNG infrastructure only started to come into place in 2020.

“It took 15 years for the talk to become reality. But for ammonia, hydrogen and methanol, you’ll see the infrastructure in place by 2027, 2028. The hype to reality will be on a far quicker scale.”

Like other industry insiders, Chambers says that hydrogen fuel cell technology is shrinking rapidly in size, while scaling up in power.

The Hydrogen Viking will showcase a conversion from diesel to clean hydrogen power

The Hydrogen Viking will showcase a conversion from diesel to clean hydrogen power

Advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology are everywhere. The World Economic Forum’s Hydrogen Council said that as of the start of 2021, over 30 countries have released hydrogen “roadmaps”, with more than 200 hydrogen projects underway. Governments around the world have committed more than US$70 billion in funding for such projects, aimed at making hydrogen power cheap enough and widely available enough to be a zero-emissions alternative fuel.

Bloomberg reported in March that Saudi Arabia plans to invest up to US$5 billion for green hydrogen production.

Some yacht builders are taking matters into their own hands to develop fuel efficiency or energy efficiency to save on fuel burn.

More importantly, experimentation is happening in the yachting industry on zero-emissions solutions. The solutions are audacious. Often, they are coming in the form of experiments and prototypes by yards or just consortiums of builders and dreamers.

SUNBAKED SOLUTIONS

Perhaps the most obvious alternative fuel for yachts is the sun. Catamarans are well placed to take advantage of solar, and there are some aggressive projects underway. Twin hulls and a wide beam mean that large solar arrays can be fitted to the top surface of a catamaran, making it the obvious choice for an all-electric, zero-emissions yacht.

There are limits, however. The power capacity of one kilogram in a battery is much less than one kilogram of traditional fuel, says Amedeo Migali, a naval architect and founder of MICAD, a future-oriented firm that designs Silent Catamarans.

“So, the main design target of solar cats is, not surprisingly, the weight control and reduction. Service power, mainly for air conditioning, is another issue. It is really important to use passive systems to keep the boat cool, with correct use of insulation,” says Migali.

Silent Yachts’ new Silent 60 | Credit: Jorgen Udvang

Silent Yachts has been doing steady and growing business with its range of solar-powered catamarans, some of which are built at the PMG shipyard in Thailand.

But the biggest commitments to solar-powered catamarans may be coming from one of the biggest names in catamaran production, Sunreef. The Polish yard is now building an Eco-series version of all its yachts. The company is also building its own solar cells and has developed a way to insert those cells into the fibreglass of the yacht, allowing for more solar power production and a boat without a large panel surface on top.

On the Sunreef 80 Power Eco, the system will cover a total surface of 150 square metres, delivering up to 34 kWp, while offering a much better-looking yacht than one covered with a large, flat panel. Nicholas Lapp of Sunreef says that at peak power (maximum possible output) the 80 Power Eco will have 40kW, which compares favourably to the Silent 80, which offers peak power of 26kW.

Sunreef 80 Eco

Lapp says that the yard really got started when a repeat client found that the batteries on his Sunreef 60 were still working, even after his yacht was badly damaged in an Atlantic hurricane in 2017. The owner went back to Sunreef to build a 50-footer, this time with huge battery banks and the latest in energy-saving technology, with the aim of creating an all-electric boat.

As batteries were getting cheaper and lighter, Sunreef decided to develop the Eco line of yachts. Lapp says that the company has patented its own solar photovoltaic cell technology. “We started to feel that the requests for electric running were increasing, so we said, let’s do this properly.”

MAKING HYDROGEN WORK

Numerous projects in Europe focus on using hydrogen fuel cell technology, where hydrogen gas interacts with oxygen to create electricity. The byproducts are air and water.

Hynova, a French startup founded by former charter captain Chloé Zaied, is developing a 40-foot prototype yacht that uses hydrogen fuel cell technology. The Hynova 40 was unveiled in Monaco last September, and has been described as the world’s first fully hydrogen-powered production yacht.

Perhaps most significantly, Lürssen, the builder of the world’s biggest superyachts, has recently announced the sale of a superyacht that will boast hydrogen fuel cell technology. Lürssen Sales Director Michael Breman revealed in April that his company is currently testing a new methanol-hydrogen fuel cell concept.

Lürssen’s yacht will be able to spend more than 15 nights at anchor or travel over 1,000 nautical miles without releasing any emission

Driving to zero Michael Breman_IMG_1245

Lürssen Sales Director Michael Breman

The problem with a hydrogen fuel cell is storage. Hydrogen requires enormous tanks because it has a much lower energy density than diesel, and liquid hydrogen must be stored at cryogenic temperatures of -253C. By using hydrogen to create methanol, which ‘carries’ a lot of hydrogen at regular temperatures and pressures, yachts can store hydrogen onboard more easily.

Lürssen is planning on running a year-long test of the new methanol- hydrogen fuel cell plant, which will be able to produce up to 100kW of power.

The new technology will be deployed on a yacht to be launched in 2025. The company claims that the yacht will be able to spend more than 15 nights at anchor or travel over 1,000 nautical miles without releasing any emissions.

Lurssen’s shipyard

It may be easy to dismiss the practicality of gargantuan superyachts to the larger yachting market. What does an 80-foot motoryacht have in common with a 150-metre megayacht?

The most intriguing answer comes from Norway, where two brothers, Per Erik Berger and Guillaume Berger, decided to invest their inheritance into a green hydrogen marine project. They bought a 2004 Sunseeker 95, which had been owned by the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The yacht had been abandoned and left to rot in Malta before being purchased by the Berger brothers.

They created a consortium, Green Yacht, consisting of Greenstat, a Norwegian energy company focused on zero-emission solutions for the maritime industry, and CMR Prototech, an R&D company using fuel cell technology. Both companies are owners of Green Yacht. The yacht is currently being rebuilt with hydrogen fuel cell technology at Noryards BMV in Norway.

The plan for Hydrogen Viking is ambitious. In the first phase, the yacht will have its diesel engines and related systems removed. These will be replaced with twin electric motors in straight shaft arrangement. The next phase will be the installation of hydrogen fuel cells and storage tanks, designed by Corvus Energy using technology from Toyota.

The plan is to have a fully functioning, refurbished and redesigned hydrogen-powered 95-foot Sunseeker in the water by 2022. The brothers say the yacht will initially be used as a conference and events space before being sold on the brokerage market as a private yacht. The project has struggled for money, but recent reports indicate that the project is now moving quickly.

Green Yacht is aiming to provide refit services for similarly sized yachts to switch from a diesel-based system to hydrogen.

THE NUCLEAR OPTION

If it’s good enough for the world’s blue-water navies, then why not for a superyacht? In April, serial entrepreneur Aaron Olivera dropped a bombshell on the yachting world with the release of the design for Earth 300, a nuclear-powered superyacht.

Singapore-based Olivera was behind the Royal Falcon Fleet, a set of Porsche- designed luxury catamarans. One was finally built and is now part of a time-sharing club for millionaires.

With Earth 300, Olivera has set his sights substantially higher. The new yacht is to be powered by a marine molten salt reactor (m-MSR). The technology in MSRs was developed as far back as the 1960s. Researchers are now looking with renewed interest at this technology, which uses molten salts as a coolant as opposed to traditional reactors that use water.

earth 300

Earth 300

Olivera has gathered an impressive array of partners in his earth-shattering project. Among them are IBM, RINA, Wärtsilä and Core Power in the UK, which is working to develop the marine Molten Salt Reactor. Core Power is working on projects with TerraPower in the US, which is chaired by Bill Gates.

“We want to help decarbonise the entire maritime fleet by promoting and accelerating the adoption of new technologies (such as m-MSR), so the shipping and commercial marine industry can also make better long-term choices, financially and environmentally,” Olivera says.

Olivera says the green credentials of alternative fuels are offset by the environmental costs of creating, transporting and storing them. “At first, Earth 300 will be running on a set of hybrid systems and go as far as possible with synthetic green fuels until it introduces m-MSR,” he says.

Olivera has given a launch date of 2025 for the 300-metre Earth 300 and says conversations with shipyards in Germany and South Korea have begun.

To succeed, more investors are needed, and Olivera admits that government support for the project will help determine in which country the project gets built. The Earth 300 premise would combine science research vessel with spaces for paying VIP clients.

Earth 300 owes its incredible appearance to Ivan Salas Jefferson, a Barcelona-based naval architect and founder of Iddes Yachts.

Could nuclear work for a vessel of this scale? Olivera asserts that his monster ship could contain its main engine in a space the size of a 40-foot container. In theory, a vessel powered by nuclear energy would not need to worry about fuel supply availability. Scientists are still debating the virtues of new nuclear reactor designs.

Whether Earth 300 sees the light of day or not, the fact that the discussion is coming up at all shows how serious the drive to zero is getting.