Sep. 21, 2009 A group of ambitious Rensselaer students will soon sail up the Hudson River, propelled by pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells and a clear vision for a cleaner, greener future.
Their boat, the 22-foot New Clermont, is fit with a pair of 2.2-kilowatt fuel cell units. With a crew of three, the ship will launch from Pier 84 in Manhattan on September 21 and cruise at a cool 6 mph to arrive in Troy on the evening of September 25. The group is planning to make several stops along the way, showing off their one-of-a-kind boat, speaking with other green-minded individuals, and talking about the many environmental and potential economic benefits of building out the nation’s hydrogen economy.
“At its core, the New Clermont Project is about awareness. It’s a fun way to teach people about hydrogen energy,” said doctoral student William Gathright, who founded the group in early 2009. “We’re high-tech environmentalists. We want to share our vision of a time when people can take a pleasure cruise on their boat, or drive to the store, without leaving a trail of pollution and toxins behind them. We hope to inspire and challenge them to think of ways of making that vision a reality.”
Gathright, a doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellow who is also pursuing a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer’s Lally School of Management & Technology, has assembled a volunteer team of undergraduate and graduate students from a wide spectrum of academic disciplines. New Clermont team members are not receiving any course credit for the project.
The first few months of the project entailed recruiting a team with skills and expertise in materials science and engineering, electrical and systems engineering, management, and communications. Their only physical asset, at first, was the boat itself – a forgotten, neglected vessel that Gathright promptly renamed the New Clermont. The 40-year-old sailboat is a Bristol 22, sometimes called a Bristol Caravel, and measures 22 feet from aft to bow.
Along with major repairs, maintenance, and scrubbing away two decades worth of grime, Gathright and cohorts used their engineering know-how to prep the New Clermont to hold and support a pair of fuel cell units. The units, which are GenDrive class 3 systems on loan to the students from Latham, N.Y.-based fuel cell developer Plug Power, each weigh about 500 pounds and stand three feet wide by three feet tall. The team used a crane to lift the units into the New Clermont and sit them on specially engineered, homemade mounts.
“This project, from beginning to end, has certainly been an exercise in creative problem solving,” Gathright said. “But you know what? We’re Rensselaer students. Innovating and problem solving is what we do best.”
The New Clermont’s fuel cell units run on compressed hydrogen gas. A special membrane within the fuel cell systems separates the hydrogen into electrons and protons. The protons pass through the membrane and the electrons travel around a circuit, which creates electricity. After passing through the membrane, the protons and electrons are exposed to oxygen from the ambient air, which results in the creation of water and a small amount of heat. The electrochemical process is entirely pollution-free. The fuel cells power a pair of motors mounted on the stern of the New Clermont. Team members modified the store-bought engines to accept input from the fuel cell units.
Along with boosting the visibility and public awareness of hydrogen, fuel cells, and green energy, the New Clermont Project is also a celebration of American ingenuity and the rich technological history of New York state and the Hudson River. The project and boat are named after and will closely mirror the route of the world’s first commercial steamboat, the Clermont, which renowned captain Robert Fulton sailed from New York to Albany in the first years of the 19th century – almost exactly 200 years ago.
The New Clermont Project also coincides with the 400-year anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic trek up what would eventually become the Hudson River.
“Just as Robert Fulton wanted to prove to the world that steam was a viable, economical means to power boats and unleash the economic potential of our waterways, we want to open people’s eyes to the viability of hydrogen and fuel cells as a way to power boats, and one day maybe even our cars, trucks, and homes,” said Lally School MBA student Leah Rollhaus, who helps lead the New Clermont Project.
The New Clermont Project had a busy summer, from participating in the annual Clearwater Festival to networking with the Capital Region and New York business communities to rally support and build a buzz around the September voyage. Along the way, the New Clermont Project also became a member group of the Rensselaer Student Sustainability Task Force, and joined ranks with the Institute’s Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship. The New Clermont will end its voyage at the docks of Rensselaer’s home town of Troy, N.Y., during the monthly Troy Night Out celebration.
“It’s been an outstanding experience, and I can’t wait to set sail, meet all sorts of interesting new people during our five-day voyage, and hopefully impress upon everyone that – with a little effort – we can all take ownership of the future and do our part to make this Earth a cleaner and greener place.”
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