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Hydrogen Hybrid Canal Boat

The Ross Barlow hydrogen hybrid canal boat is the outcome of the Protium Project at the University of Birmingham. Click to enlarge.

Engineers at the University of Birmingham (UK) have developed a zero-emission hydrogen hybrid canal boat.  The boat, called The Ross Barlow, is fully operational and demonstrates how a combination of magnet and fuel cell technologies could be used to power inland waterways craft.

The Ross Barlow was created by converting a standard maintenance boat which was donated to the University’s Protium Project by British Waterways. Engineers replaced the diesel engine with a NdFeB permanent magnet electric motor, lead-acid battery stack, metal hydride store, and 5 kW PEM fuel cell.

Schematic for the propulsion system. Click to enlarge.

The motor is designed by the Lynch motor company, and is based on a brushed 4-quadrant axial flux motor, with a power output of 10 kW (13 hp) with a maximum efficiency of 89%. The NdFeB sintered magnets for the motor were manufactured by the Hydrogen Decrepitation process (HD process).

Hydrogen can play a role in the processing of NdFeB magnets by either the hydrogen decrepitation process (HD) or by the hydrogenation, disproportionation, desorption and recombination (HDDR) process to produce high energy magnets.

The HD process.

In the HD process, an as-cast ingot is exposed to hydrogen, which is absorbed at the surface. The hydrogen enters the material in the spaces between the atoms and causes the material to expand. The differential expansion generates stress in the ingot and the alloy breaks down into a fine powder. The HD powder is then broken up further by a jet milling stage which reduces the particle size to around 5mm.

When the powder has been broken down to so fine a size, each particle of powder is a single crystal, which can be aligned in a magnetic field. This alignment is held in place by pressing the powder into a green compact, which is about 60% dense. The compact is then heated in vacuum to ~1,060ºC for 1 hour. During the heating stage the hydrogen comes out of the material and is pumped away. When held at ~1,060ºC for 1 hour sintering occurs and the compact densifies, with the assistance of a liquid formed by the melting of the Nd-rich phase. After sintering the magnets are quenched and then heat treated in order to achieve the optimum magnetic properties.

Another important on-board application for NdFeB magnets is in the guidance system where the conventional tiller can be replaced by a permanent magnet actuator.

The hydrogen is stored on board in a 5-cylinder, 130 kg Ti-V-Mn-Fe metal hydride storage system which was developed by the Birmingham group with Swiss collaborators at EMPA Laboratories in Zurich. The system yields about 2.5 kg of hydrogen. Operating pressure is less than 10 bar and the 5 units together store the equivalent of 4 fully charged standard gas cylinders at a pressure of 200 bars. To the knowledge of the team, this is by far the largest solid state hydrogen store being employed in any transport application within the UK.

The hydrogen is provided by Beacon Energy Ltd based in Loughborough, Leicestershire, and is produced by electrolysis powered by electricity from wind turbines (“green” hydrogen).

It is widely recognized that the world has no more than twenty years to meet the urgent challenges of climate change and oil depletion.  Much can be gained from the operation of hydrogen-based demonstrators and the canal boat project represents one step in the journey towards a hydrogen society.

Studies on the performance of the boat will establish the viability of hydrogen for energy storage and as a fuel.  We wanted to improve the science and engineering in this field by creating a real working example of this type of transport application and to enhance the public’s understanding and acceptance of hydrogen.

One of the most energy efficient means of moving goods is by canal and the threats of global warming and oil depletion are resulting in a resurgence of interest in this means of transportation.

—Professor Rex Harris, project leader

Longer terms aims of the project include the development of a canal-side hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and to generate green hydrogen on suitable sites throughout the canal network. The boat will also be used as an educational tool.  It features an LCD screen which displays information about sustainable technologies involving hydrogen and magnets and how these new technologies come together on the boat.

Ross Barlow

Ross Barlow was a postgraduate student who worked on the Hydrogen Hybrid Canal Boat project in its early stages and was an enthusiastic supporter of sustainable energy.  Ross also helped out with many community projects in the Birmingham area.  He was killed in a hang gliding accident in March 2005 at the age of 25.  With strong support from his family, the project team decided to name the boat after him as a tribute.



Rafael Seidl

What is the point of this, other than the engineering challenge? Looks like a solution desperately looking for a problem.

If they had retrofitted the boat with a diesel engine featuring a DPF and an SCR system, they would have been a lot cheaper off and not have to worry about the refuelling infrastructure. They would have to use on-road diesel because the non-road variety may still contain as much as 1000ppm sulfur, which would damage the oxidation catalysts. However, on-road diesel is still much cheaper than hydrogen.



The hydrogen is provided by Beacon Energy Ltd based in Loughborough, Leicestershire, and is produced by electrolysis powered by electricity from wind turbines (“green” hydrogen).

and no one in that team thought about using directly electricity to charge batteries, which is much more efficient (3 times) than the hydrogen way ?

given the virtually non-existent problem of batteries weight on a boat, this is not only a solution looking for a problem, but a bad solution preferred to a simpler, cheaper and more efficient one.

a shadok invention, as we say in France ;-)


sorry, I mistyped the link for the Shadoks.


One of the overlooked negatives of battery-electric vehicles is that they're pretty much impossible to 'refuel' away from fixed recharging stations. If my liquid-fueled vehicle runs out of gas, it's easy enough to call for help, and at worst I can walk to the nearest station and buy a can of fuel. While I may not be able to buy a 'can' of hydrogen, it would be no difficulty for roadside assistance vehicles to have the capability to transfer a kilo of hydrogen to another vehicle.

But with an electric vehicle, no such luck. It's either an expensive towtruck, or maybe hypothetically a generator vehicle that will pull up, run a line to my car, and sit there for an hour or so charging me up to the point that I can get to a fixed recharging point, at which time I'll spend another hour or two juicing up enough to get home, at which point I plug in for a few hours more to get back to full operating capability.

Battery-electric vehicles have a lot going for them, but there are practical reasons why one would want to have chemical fuels on board. And if you're going to have a chemical fuel on board, it might as well be a nice clean one like hydrogen.


Could they not build a PHEV barge - use the battery cells for the main motive power and use a small diesel generator as a range extender.

Like all PHEV systems, this gives close to the best of both worlds - electric power for short range use + chemical fuel range if required.

Being a barge, battery weight is probably not a problem, so they could have a lot of batteries, or use the new carbon foam lead acid batteries from Firefly.

As has been said, this is an engineering study, so they could try again with a foam/diesel PHEV barge.


I would like to see a battery powered barge with solar panels.


You can always recharge a EV with a little generator, even one in the car, hence the PHEV.


I would like to see a battery powered barge with solar panels.

Solar's not affordable.


Glad you finally admitted that jack! When it is affordable I would like to see it on small ships.


Glad you finally admitted that jack! When it is affordable I would like to see it on small ships.

It'll never be affordable. Clearly this barge needs a nuclear reactor, which is safe and affordable.



I don't think a nuclear reactor will fit on a ship that small, but if it was a large Post-Panamax cargo ship that needs to travel at continues speeds over long distances day and night, yeah a modular particle bed reactor would be perfect.

Jim G.

"What is the point of this?"

Sheesh! I'd think the point would be a vehicle whose exhaust pipe only emits H20 (of course they aren't using a diesel, lol! :-) I think we're thinking about the diesel as "get me cheaply up the river to the supermarket today". This really seems more aimed at solving a single piece of the hydrogen economy puzzle in isolation (i.e., the vehicle), and, in that sense, it doesn't look like a waste of time to me; heck, it might prove useful one day. Of course, we have to get past the other challenges to hydrogen becoming practical for that to be so (i.e., other points against hydrogen taken above).

Two things pique my interest here:

1) the use of hydrides at 10 bar of pressure (solid hydrides?). Is this significantly more or less pressure/weight than what's used in simple compressed H2? Does it obviate the need for carbon fiber tanks? Can less exotic tank materials with a wider porosity be used? Is there any cost advantage to this method?

2) though we see neodymium magnets all over the place now, it's got to be a fairly uncommon and expensive mineral. Is it practical or responsible to mass produce these (keeping in mind they might ultimately be on their way to a landfill)? (BTW, I have a pair of hematite magnets; they are stronger than ferrite magnets and are mostly composed of rust, which is very abundant; I often wonder why they aren't used more widely in industry)


Why not give everyone a single-use, personal dingy with a disposable nuclear-reactor-powered motor? :-) They run very hot, plus they offer the manufacturer a returning revenue model. When you're done using one, just flip a switch and the weight of the radioactive heavy metals will sink your unit to the bottom of the river, out of sight forever.


Why not give everyone a single-use, personal dingy with a disposable nuclear-reactor-powered motor? :-) They run very hot, plus they offer the manufacturer a returning revenue model. When you're done using one, just flip a switch and the weight of the radioactive heavy metals will sink your unit to the bottom of the river, out of sight forever.

Great idea! Anything but solar!


I would like to see a battery powered barge with solar panels.

Here they are :

some solar boats in Europe


There are a number of points that need to be factored in when discussing this hybrid hydrogen battery powered craft:
Firstly batteries have got a long way to go to be anywhere near perfect, no one really can tell you exactly how much power is left in a lead acid battery from a blind state of use. The best anyone can give is an early warning of power failure due to voltage-current characteristics changing with state of charge, how old the battery is and previous usage of the battery. In contrast to the hydrogen, due to monitoring the flow of hydrogen in and out of the store the operators know exactly how much energy they have remaining.
Secondly all batteries have a self discharge mechanism due to leaking currents within the cells, this results in a loss of charge over time. Metal hydride hydrogen storage does not have this problem (as long as there are no leaks) the energy will remain stored indefinitely.
Thirdly it is significantly quicker to recharge with hydrogen than it is to recharge the onboard battery.

Although there are significant advantages to the energy stored in the hydrogen, batteries still play an important role within the craft, for example handling peak loads (maneuvering, onboard appliances- kettles etc) and for handling the regenerative loads, i.e. back emf from drive motors.

This application will provide an ideal test bed and demonstration to show how effective hydrogen can be as a clean fuel. It will be very interesting to this technology scaled up and to see the project progresses over the next couple of years.


Good work the Birmingham (UK) Team !

It seems a few readers are missing the point;
Take the Wright Brothers for example,
Flying machines had already been invented,
the steam train was by far faster,
and nobody made aeroplane parts.
So why didn't they forget the whole idea
and go to work for Mr Ford!?!


Well said, JP. The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones.

Oliver Tickell

But then the stone ago was not really the stone age - it's just that mostly we just find the stones as the leather, furs, textiles, grains, seeds, timber, thatch etc have all decayed. IMHO, BTW, a smarter kind of boat would have lead acid batteries (useful ballast) with solar PV and turbines to take advantage of ambient renewables, but with a small diesel generator as emergency backup. The hydrogen thing is not very useful at this stage but as for the future, it probably will be. But maybe in balloons more than in canal boats.

Mike Thompson

Hi Guys thought you might be interested
Ferretti, the luxury Italian yachtmaker, has teamed up with the German automotive group ZF to develop a new form of “green” motor yacht that for substantial periods will operate entirely on its on-board batteries, even with the air conditioning full on.

The private company will announce the new yacht today. It says the vessel will be capable of saving large amounts of energy while also emitting less carbon dioxide – the main “greenhouse” gas linked to global warming.

Apart from these attributes, a large selling point for customers for the new yacht – most forms of which are likely to sell for about €3m ($4.7m) – is that while in electric mode it will be far less noisy than yachts that rely solely on diesel engines.

That will go down well with people who seek the peace and quiet of sailing boats, as well as the capabilities of engine-powered boats to keep moving even in a calm.

The majority owner of Ferretti is Candover, the private equity firm, which has announced its intention to seek a listing on the Milan stock exchange. In recent months Ferretti has reported that demand for its boats – the biggest of which can sell for €50m – is holding up, in spite of the difficulties of the global economy. The vessel has been developed in partnership with ZF, which is highly regarded for its innovative approach to gearbox design.

While ZF has come up with a new form of transmission system, which includes an electric motor, Ferretti has also worked with an unnamed battery company, believed to be based in Asia. This is providing a large lithium-ion battery to store electricity for the periods when the diesel engines – of which two will be on board each vessel – are not operating.

The boat also has a sophisticated engine management system that uses computer controls to switch as necessary between the diesel and electric modes. The 500 volt onboard battery, weighing about 2.5 tonnes and rechargeable while at a port, will be capable of providing energy to the vessel for up to nine hours, of which one hour would be spent on the move with another eight hours at rest.

Andrea Frabetti, head of the company’s engineering division, said: “We have seen a lot of interest in a more environmentally friendly form of yacht.”

One stumbling block for the new boat is the limitations of current lithium-ion battery technology, which means the range of the boat while running off stored electric power will be limited to short trips. However, Ferretti hopes that new developments in this technology will increase the range within the next few years.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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