RCL steps to the fore with plans for fuel cell technology

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They’ve been used in submarines and space ships, are fueled by the most common chemical element in the universe and never die.

Called fuel cells, they will now play a role on cruise ships – specifically two on order by Royal Caribbean International as it continues to break ground on water with environmental initiatives new to the industry.

RCL-LNG-InfoGraphic-ProjectIcon-rHarri Kulovaara, RCL chief of ship design, said the company has been looking into fuel cells for almost a decade and believes their development has progressed enough to justify more investment in them. They were also included in RCL announcement today that it has ordered two ships as part of what is now called only Project Icon.

The ships are to be delivered in the second quarters of 2022 and 2024 under a memorandum of understanding signed with Finnish shipyard Meyer Turku.

“There is a long lead time for Icon class, and we will use that time to work with Meyer Turku to adapt fuel cell technology for maritime use,” Kulovaara said. He specified there’s a possibility fuel cells can be used in a “significant way” to power the Icon ships’ hotel functions, and added that regulatory standards would also have to be developed for the technology.

While the workings of a fuel cell at the molecular level are a bit arcane, it’s easy to describe its function.

Like the familiar electric battery, a fuel cell converts chemicals into electricity. Unlike a battery, when a fuel cell combines chemicals – say, abundant hydrogen and oxygen – it creates electricity and water.

The pure water can be consumed, put to other freshwater uses or discarded as waste. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has used fuel cells for decades, first in its space capsules and satellites, and then on the space shuttles. The power they produced supplied the electricity on the spacecraft, and crew members drank the water.

Also unlike a common battery, which eventually runs out of juice, a fuel cell continues to produce electricity and water as long as it’s fed chemicals. Like those used by NASA, most fuel cells today rely on a steady flow of hydrogen and oxygen.

For that and other reasons, NASA has called hydrogen the “fuel of choice for space exploration.”

Fuel cells do not burn anything to produce power, so there are no emissions to harm the environment. They run very quietly, almost silently, and for that have attracted attention for military uses. One was used to propel a small research submarine in 1964. In late September, the world’s first four-seat airplane powered by hybrid fuel cells took to the air over Stuttgart, Germany.

RCL intends to begin testing fuel cell technology on an existing ship next year, leading to progressively larger experimental projects on new Oasis- and Quantum-class ships being built in the next few years.