This self-sufficient boat makes its own hydrogen fuel from seawater

The Energy Observer is the world's first boat to produce hydrogen fuel from seawater.
Image: Energy Observer

Right now, hydrogen fuel is more of a cool concept than a realistic way to transition to clean energy. That could soon change. A boat currently sailing in the world’s vast oceans hopes to be a part of it.

Dubbed “Energy Observer,” the self-sufficient vessel is making its own hydrogen fuel from the seawater it floats in. Its also covered in solar panels to generate even more electricity. By combining several cutting-edge green technologies, Energy Observer is a shining example of what happens when we embrace clean energy.

Clean Sailing

The Energy Observer began its six-year journey back in 2017. Then, it was only able to generate hydrogen while stopped. Thanks to some efficiency upgrades, like 12-meter-tall autonomous Oceanwings sails, it can now do so while moving.

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It’s all possible thanks to a special fuel cell called the Range Extender H2. The cell was made by Toyota with components from its hydrogen-powered Mirai vehicle line. It first pulls in seawater. Then, it removes the salt by passing it through a membrane filter and uses electricity to separate hydrogen from the pure H20 that’s left behind.

Thanks to more than 200 square meters of solar panels charging its lithium-ion batteries, Energy Observer has plenty of electricity. In fact, it generates enough energy each day to power nine homes. Once the batteries are full, the ship stores the extra power as hydrogen fuel.

Energy Observer is able to then convert the hydrogen into electricity whenever it is running low—for instance, on a very cloudy day when the solar panels don’t generate as much power.

It is the first boat to make its own hydrogen fuel from seawater.

Hydrogen or Lithium-Ion?

While its clear that there is demand for clean energy solutions, companies and consumers haven’t determined what sort of power is best. As such, the debate between hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries rages on.

Elon Musk and Tesla support the latter. The company’s cars run on lithium-ion batteries that can recharge at home or at almost any charging station. Thanks to Tesla’s efforts and those of companies like Electrify America, charging stations are becoming more plentiful.

The same isn’t true about hydrogen fueling stations. Hydrogen-powered cars are arguably a better solution as their only by-product is water. Plus, hydrogen can be generated from green solutions like solar panels. By contrast, the electricity that recharges lithium-ion batteries typically comes from fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, hydrogen fueling hasn’t caught on yet. That’s because people aren’t buying hydrogen-powered cars due to the lack of refueling stations. Of course, companies don’t have enough incentive to build refueling stations until more people are driving hydrogen cars. That catch 22 is what Energy Observer hopes to address.

The self-sufficient vessel wants to prove that clean energy solutions are viable in almost every setting. After all, if they can survive in the harsh environment at sea, they are certainly good enough for urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Ultimately, a sustainable future will rely on many kinds of clean energy production. Hydrogen, lithium-ion, solar, wind, and water will all play a part. Embracing as many new technologies as possible will help speed up the world’s transition away from fossil fuels.


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