One of the most efficient means of transporting freight is by ship. However, many of the ships sailing today are powered by ageing diesel motors fitted with neither exhaust cleaning equipment nor or modern control systems. Three years ago the University of Birmingham initiated an ambitious trial, converting an old canal barge to use hydrogen fuel. The old diesel motor, drive system and fuel tank were removed and replaced with a high efficiency electric motor, a battery pack for short-term energy supply and a fuel cell with a hydrogen storage system to charge the batteries. In September 2007 the converted boat, the "Ross Barlow", was launched on its maiden voyage on Britain's 3500 km long canal system. Last year the barge made its longest voyage to date, of four days duration and 105 km length, negotiating no less than 58 locks. A good opportunity to look back and take stock.
Mass-produced drive system meets tailor-made storage technology
The first task to be done in converting the 18 m long steel-hulled barge was to calculate the power requirements. Based on experience with other battery driven canal boats it was decided to use a 10 kW permanent magnet motor. To provide energy for longer trips a commercial fuel cell delivering 1 kW of power was chosen. This system was originally designed as an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for use in the telephone industry. The capacity of the fuel cell was, however insufficient to power the boat directly, so the “Ross Barlow” was also fitted with a 47 kWh buffer battery. Lead acid batteries were used for this purpose since they are low maintenance, low-priced and easy to charge. The weight of the battery pack is of no consequence when used in an inland waterways vessel.