Bruce Appelgate gestures toward a rendering of the new hydrogen-powered research ship. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Thanks to $35 million in state funding spearheaded by Sen. Toni Atkins, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will design and build the first large hydrogen-powered research vessel.

The ship will use fuels cells that combine hydrogen with oxygen in the air to generate electricity to drive propulsion motors. It’s a hybrid design because there will be diesel-generator backup for the longest voyages.

The new vessel will replace the 40-year-old, diesel-powered R/V Robert Gordon Sproul, which is already a decade past its design life, on coastal research voyages.

Bruce Appelgate, associate director of Scripps and head of ship operations, said the hydrogen fuel cell technology supports clean, quiet operations and has nine-times of power per weight of batteries.

“We don’t want to damage the environment that we’re studying,” he said, citing a major impetus for the design.

He said Scripps began studies in 2014 and came to conclusion that fuel cells could power a large vessel and building one would set an example for the shipping industry.

“It’s going to show the maritime industry that this is possible,” he said. “This is going to have international repercussions.”

Hydrogen fuel cells are already being used to power passenger cars and heavy trucks and being considered for locomotives.

Atkins, who was at Scripp’s Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma for the announcement, said research by Scripps has been instrumental in drafting California legislation related to climate change and sea level rise.

“It’s the very science that’s guiding my own legislation this year,” she said.

The funding is part of over $200 million earmarked for projects in San Diego County, including the city of San Diego’s water recycling project, repairs to the Ocean Beach pier and renovation of the UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.