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Uncharted waters: Success!? New Clermont voyage showcases student ingenuity as well as green power

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: A team of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students traveled up New York’s Hudson River on the New Clermont, a 6.7-meter boat outfitted with a pair of 2.2-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cells to power the boat’s motor. The 240-kilometer journey began from Manhattan’s Pier 84 on September 21 and concluded October 2 near Rensselaer’s campus in Troy, N.Y. This is the fifth and final Scientific American.com blog post chronicling this expedition, called the New Clermont Project.

New Clermont, Rensselaer Polytech, Casey Hoffman, hydrogenWhen the crew members of the New Clermont set off from Manhattan, they hoped that by the time they returned to campus they would have notched a victory for green power. The jury is still out on whether the voyage was successful in its ability to use hydrogen as an alternative to gasoline—the boat limped to port last Friday under its own power but one week behind schedule and only after burning through a couple motors.

One thing that’s clear—the resourceful students behind the project demonstrated boatloads of ingenuity when confronted with a series of equipment failures that could easily have persuaded them to give up. Instead, they isolated the boat’s main problem to the fuel cells’ tendency to overpower the engine and improvised a solution.

The boat’s motors tested just fine prior to the voyage, but repeated use with the hydrogen fuel cells over a number of days ultimately caused them to overheat and fail, says crewmember Casey Hoffman, a second-year mechanical engineering doctoral student at Rensselaer. Independently, the motors and fuel cells are extremely reliable pieces of equipment, he adds. The fuel cells were designed to power forklift trucks with motors much larger than those on the New Clermont. The crew chose them, however, because they knew they would be able to provide sufficient power to the boat’s motors while also being compact enough to fid in the boat’s cabin.

That cells’ power was a blessing and a curse, prompting the crew to replace the motor’s original controller with one the students themselves rigged up to ensure that the motor didn’t receive more than the 60 amps and 24 volts it was designed to handle.

In the end, Hoffman, a U.S. National Science Foundation’s IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) Fellow studying fuel cell electrode manufacturing, says he’s proud of the effort and the attention it brought to benefits (and challenges) of relying on alternative power sources.

Image courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute





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  1. 1. jaqcp 8:06 am 10/7/2009

    Only though glorious failure do we reach the threshold of success! Kudos guys!

    Link to this

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