Editor's Note: A team of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students are traveling up New York's Hudson River this week 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. Their journey began September 21 from Manhattan's Pier 84 and will cover 240 kilometers (at a projected speed of 8 kilometers per hour). After making several stops along the way, the crew expects to arrive back at Rensselaer Polytech's campus in Troy, N.Y., on September 25. This is the first of Scientific American.com's blogs chronicling this expedition, called the New Clermont Project.

The New Clermont Project comes 200 years after Robert Fulton drove the world's first commercial steamboat, The Clermont, from New York to Albany. William Gathright, a doctoral student in Rensselaer's Materials Science and Engineering Department, began assembling the crew and resources necessary for this green-fueled tour of the Hudson earlier this year. Gathright is also pursuing a master's in management from Rensselaer's Lally School of Management & Technology.

"This morning we began to retrace the original voyage of Fulton's steamboat The Clermont," Gathright blogged about Monday's launch from Pier 84. While Fulton stopped at Albany, the Rensselaer students will continue about 16 kilometers farther to the town of Troy, where their school is located.

Casey Hoffman, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Rensselaer who's part of Gathright's crew, noted on the group's Web site that the journey got off to a rough start Monday, as the New Clermont was unable to safely tie up to Pier 84 in a heavy current next to the U.S.S. Intrepid, a World War II-era aircraft carrier that's been docked on Manhattan's West Side since 1982 and includes an air and space museum. "Will and I were forced to cancel the scheduled event and continue on our journey," Casey blogged about their planned sendoff. "After leaving Manhattan we were able to catch the rising tide and quickly pass the George Washington Bridge, Yonkers Science Barge (where we waved to onlookers), and Tappan Zee Bridge." The crew ended the day in Ossining, N.Y., where it could refuel for Tuesday's leg.

"Unlike Fulton we aren't burning anything," Gathright blogged. The New Clermont is powered by two GenDrive class 3 fuel cell systems on loan to the students from Latham, N.Y.-based fuel cell developer Plug Power, Inc. Each weighs about 227 kilograms and stands about one meter wide by one meter tall. The team used a crane to lift the units into the New Clermont and seat them on homemade mounts.

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 exhaust water and a small amount of heat. 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.

"The New Clermont is rather more unimposing," Gathright blogs. "Instead of spouting fire, the fuel cell units create only pure water—cleaner even than the river we sail upon."

The New Clermont Project will at once demonstrate hydrogen power as viable for transportation, highlight some of the many challenges that must be tackled before hydrogen can be widespread, and explore the rich history of the Hudson River, says Gathright, who adds, "Join us as we help look after the future as we look back at our past."


Images courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute