The first commercial hydrogen passenger ferry in the world is scheduled to debut in early 2024 in San Francisco. As the milestone approaches, the hydrogen ferry’s owner (a start-up called Switch Maritime) plans to expand its fleet of zero-emissions ferries across the country.

Switch recently announced that it raised $10 million in Series A funding to grow its fleet beyond the initial pilot project. Nexus Development Capital led the funding round, which aims to propel Switch into a full-fledged ferry-building business.

Sea Change, Switch’s 75-passenger ferry, relies on fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. Unlike diesel engines, fuel cells produce minimal carbon dioxide and air pollution, emitting only heat and water vapor. The ferry’s power system is further complemented by a 100-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.

Initially, the fuel cells will use conventional hydrogen, which is currently produced from fossil gas through emission-intensive methods. However, the goal is to transition to using only “green hydrogen,” made from carbon-free electricity and water, as soon as sufficient supplies become available in San Francisco and beyond.

Zero Emission Industries, another company involved in the early development of the Sea Change ferry, built its hydrogen fuel-cell system. The company also recently closed a $8.75 million Series A financing round to advance its innovative hydrogen refueling technology for maritime and heavy-duty vehicles.

Conventional ferries are disproportionately harmful to the environment. According to Canary Media, even though ferries make up only 2 percent of commercial harbor craft in California, they contribute to 15% of maritime-related nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Nitrogen oxides damage human respiratory systems.

To address this issue, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has implemented a rule that requires all short-run ferries in California to be zero-emissions by the end of 2025.

Hydrogen ferries vs. electric ferries

Although hydrogen fuel cells are gaining attention as a potential solution for ferries, some operators in California and other states are opting for battery power.

The Washington State Ferries system is retrofitting its diesel ferries with hybrid-electric systems that can operate mainly on battery power. The system plans to have its first fully electric ferry running by 2027, linking Seattle and Bainbridge Island.

Switch remains open to both battery and hydrogen fuel cell options. The company is committed to assisting municipal ferry operators and public transit agencies in adopting the most suitable technology for their needs.

Operating ferries over long distances presents challenges when relying solely on batteries. Increasing the onboard battery capacity not only adds weight, which slows down the vessel, but also reduces the space available for passengers and vehicles.

Moreover, recharging electric ferries necessitates substantial and costly upgrades to the electricity systems at ports and ferry terminals to accommodate quick and substantial power delivery.

In contrast, hydrogen vessels can travel longer distances due to carrying their own hydrogen supply in storage tanks.

Switch’s ferry is not the only recent breakthrough in the area of hydrogen-powered boating. Earlier this year, Monaco-based company MYSEA began selling a hydrogen-powered yacht that can carry eight to 10 passengers. The yacht can travel for days at a time without refueling.

Image Source: Hydrogen Standard