Zero-emission ambitions energize a hydrogen-powered hydrofoil startup that is twice as fast as container ships – so can sailing sail?

Computer visualisation of a catamaran hydrofoil with a dozen shipping containers.

Computer visualisation of the Argo Green LH2 hydrofoil cargo vessel โ€” the next generation hydrofoil vessel that uses carbon-fibre composite wings and mast.

Boundary Layer Technologies

One hundred years of history supports them, hydrofoils are known for their high speed.  Speed โ€‹โ€‹is achieved by “flying” over the surface to remove water and reduce drag, such as aircraft underneath the craft.  Their popularity peaked in the 1970s, then declined due to stability challenges, material problems and high production and maintenance costs.

But now, Boundary Layer Technologies (BLT), a four-year-old marine technology startup based in Alameda, California, aims to create liquid hydrogen (LH2) hydrofoil cargo ship Argo using technological advances of the past 50 years.  The after-business deal with container shipping and air transport is valued at more than US $ 6 trillion.

โ€œEvery component of the era that is going into foiling ships has been around since the 70s,โ€ says Ed Kearney, founder and CEO of BLT. In particular, the use of carbon-fibre composites for wings and mast instead of the previously used stainless steel “has resolved the structural performance of the wings. They are now thinner, create less traction and therefore significantly reduce fuel consumption.

Traditionally, hydrofoils are smaller because of the higher energy demands of larger boats (lift-off),” says Zhouhui Qin, who teaches computational fluid dynamics at the University of Cedarville, Ohio, and advises the college’s winning design team.  2019 Mandela Award for Hydrofoil Excellence.  However, they concede that weight reduction with the development of composite materials makes larger ships like the Argo.

Other technological advancements include computing power and computational fluid-dynamics simulation software, which allows engineers to design wings using a number of iterations in fluid simulations, as compared to using towing tanks, which makes Argo more economical and faster.

To avoid hitting floating objects, the Argo uses an X-band radar.  And a forward-scanning sonar is used to detect submerged objects and mammals within a range of 1,500 metres, giving pilots about 75 seconds to avoid submerged obstacles, Kearney says.

Argo increases the power required to increase the hull by approximately 1.6 megawatt-hours of lithium-ion batteries primarily up to 5 metres from the surface – including 70 tonnes of payload, 70 percent more cargo than the Boeing 747-400 according to BLT  Designed to have – twice as fast as container ships.

Despite being popular decades ago, hydrofoil technologies have continued to leap and limit due to advanced materials and smart CAD simulation environments, says Ed Kearney, CEO of Boundary Layer Technologies.  Boundary Layer Technologies

But Stephen Turnack, professor of marine fluid dynamics and head of the Department of Civil, Marine and Environmental Engineering at the University of Southampton, England, questions some of the BLT’s claims.  โ€œIn principle, hydrofoils can go faster [than container ships] for the same installed power.  But doubling the rate appears like an advertising and marketing line.  For many cruises, local speed limits limit the gains that can be made during high cruises.

Kin echoes the reservation, questioning whether Argo could achieve such “speed advantages and still be financially viable.”

Argo carries liquid hydrogen in 26,000-kilogram, 370-cubic-metre LH2 tanks at two hulls of the vessel.  An amplifier supplies conditioned gas H2 to a 10-megawatt fuel-cell stack.  DC power from the stack is converted to AC and motor inverters are provided to run the propulsion system.  The propulsion system consists of four 2.5-MW motors, which drive the contrast propellers through the Z-Drive gearing, enabling rapid changes in thrust direction.

Kearney points out that the industry has been using liquid and gas hydrogen for over 100 years, and as a result, safety protocols are well understood.  So they do not assume any special problems when using LH2.

Turnock agrees that hydrogen can be safely handled, which is why ship officials are looking to develop the protocols necessary to operate ships using hydrogen and fuel cells.  But they note that fast foiling of hydrofoils can pose additional risks, which is why they should protect the H2 and fuel-cell systems well enough in the event of a collision.

Argo is scheduled to launch in 2024.  โ€œWe need to rely on a mix of blue and green hydrogen from countries like China, Japan and [South] Korea to serve our early Asian trade routes,โ€ Kearney says.  But they note that by early 2025, Australia will supply 118,000 tonnes of green hydrogen annually to Asia.  “And we’re already talking to producers to get long-term supply contracts.”

Currently, the Argo team is specifying design requirements for key systems and shaping their performance.  But Kerny says they have built, tested, and demonstrated 60 percent of the technology in prototype ships.  According to Kearney, in 2019, they completed the prototype P3 – the first hydrofoiling container ship.  It was built in 10 weeks at a cost of $ 150,000 as proof of concept.

The company has received financial support from Y Combinator, Lower Carbon Capital and other, unnamed, supporters.  Additionally, it has received a $ 180 million letter from Flexport, a digital freight forwarder interested in shipping units for electronics manufacturers in Asia, to launch BLT freight services.

Meanwhile, the company plans to launch an electric hydrofoil boat in Q1 2024.  It is designed to carry 150 passengers and cruise at 40 knots with a range of 185 km, and its power comes with a 9,000 kWh lithium-ion battery system.

โ€œElectra has eighty percentage era overlap with Argo,โ€ says Kearney.  “By decreasing drag with the aid of using  factors, its electricity necessities are decreased with the aid of using half, which will increase its velocity and range.”

By launching a smaller Electra ahead of Argo, Kearney sees BLT working with partners to develop its freight service, bringing in early revenue.

โ€œOver the subsequent 18 months, we may be building and finding out full-scale Argo vital subsystems,โ€ says Kearney. Construction is targeted to begin in Q3 2023 and operations begin in Q3 2024.

The business plan calls for Argo to provide home-to-door transportation time from 15 to 24 hours, rather than just air freight, but 50 percent of the cost.  Given the ship’s small size โ€” 33 metres in length โ€” compared to three days for larger container ships, Kearney says Argo will be able to bypass the traffic ports and unload and reload in just 2 hours.

Of course, if the whole lot is going consistent with the plan. BLT is still working to reach the stage of dynamic design, so there are a lot and undoubtedly challenges to overcome before a full-scale prototype is ready to be tested.

But as Turnack points out, the world is moving toward decarbonization today and moving away from flying luxury – both of which open a niche for new emission-free, aircraft-based competitors.

Quinn agrees that Argo has the potential to compete in relatively short-haul transportation markets, if realised in its justification and lower cost.

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