Hydrogen-Powered Superyachts: Future or Fantasy?
Discussions of sustainability are getting louder. From hybrid propulsion systems to lightweight, energy-efficient materials, almost every yacht builder or designer can pride themselves on making more effort to build more sustainably today than they did ten or 15 years ago. Very few of them however have gone so far as to lay out a feasible and industry-wide solution to achieve ‘zero’; zero carbon, zero emissions. This is exactly what James Roy and the rest of the team at Lateral Naval Architects have done. The only thing standing between James and his vision for the future? Some visionary yacht owners, an organised movement, and a multi-billion pound investment.
Although that may sound far-fetched, what Lateral’s ambitious team of architects is suggesting is not exactly new. As early as 2006, under Lateral’s parent company BMT, the team was tasked with innovating green solutions to commuter ferries on the Thames after it was announced that London would host the 2012 Summer Olympics. The use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel was a focus point even back then, and cropped up again during a study into hydrogen carriers later in 2013.
‘The debate seems to come and go in cycles,’ James tells us. ‘The real catalyst now is the IMO commitment to decarbonise by 2050. The political will is there, and the regulatory environment is coming.’
And he’s not wrong. With restrictions to carbon-free vessels only in the Norwegian Fjords coming just around the corner, it won’t be long before other popular yachting destinations follow suit.
‘We wanted to pin our colours to a particular vision of the future. There are many alternative fuels; ammonia, wind assist, compressed hydrogen and liquefied hydrogen amongst others - depending on which part of the marine industry you talk to, you’ll get a different vision of what the future will be.’
Enter AQUA. The 112m liquefied hydrogen-powered superyacht engineered by Lateral in collaboration with Sinot Yacht Architecture & Design was announced at the Monaco Yacht Show in 2019. The project attracted significant publicity after a false rumour later spread that Microsoft founder Bill Gates had bought the yacht.
James tells us, ‘There’s no compromise in capability - AQUA doesn’t give up any function in terms of what it is or what it does.’
Two cryogenic tanks feature in the centre of the yacht, storing 28 tonnes of liquefied hydrogen at -253 degrees Celsius. A bank of low temperature Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells generate electrical energy in addition to this, for distribution throughout the all-electric architecture of the yacht. Every effort has been made to reduce the hotel load of AQUA, while advanced hydrodynamics have been implemented to reduce drag and increase efficiency. The result is a modest 3530 Gross Tonnage set against a streamlined and exceptionally aesthetic 112m waterline.
‘The inescapable fact is that the energy density of hydrogen is not on par with fossil fuels, so more volume in the boat is given over to storage of fuel and machinery,’ says James. ‘But that is the challenge for the future - how can we still deliver the same client experience, on a boat that’s not effectively a layer cake?’
Bill Gates may not have bought AQUA. But inevitably someone will, and with the technology to build Aqua commercially available today, we could see the onset of a revolutionary trend in hydrogen propulsion as soon as 2025 - right? Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.
‘In the 1980s you could go out and buy an electric car,’ James tells us. ‘But there was nowhere to charge it up. It’s taken part of the industry to invest in the infrastructure - that is the charging network - in order to make the product relevant and compelling for people to buy.’
Until the relevant infrastructure exists for bunkering hydrogen, Lateral’s vision for the future of propulsion remains on hold. Constructing a superyacht over 100m is one thing. As for building and operating the hydrogen plants required to sustain ‘zero carbon, zero emissions’ cruising, the investment would be near-impossible for one owner to take on alone.
‘I have a fantasy,’ James confesses. ‘If we could get the world’s top five or ten richest individuals together and agree on a plan to build a series of decentralised hydrogen production plants, powered by renewable energy - say two in the Med and one in the Caribbean - suddenly the whole yachting milk run has the ability to bunker hydrogen.’
He goes on, ‘We can keep on pushing out these concepts and promoting the use of the technology, but unless we can make it interesting for someone to invest in the infrastructure as well, it is going to be a waiting game on the wider marine market to signal where we will go.’
Fortunately for James and the rest of the team at Lateral, the superyacht industry does have a certain edge when it comes to resource. ‘The stakes of building a superyacht are pretty high. I don’t think as an industry we’re that smart at encouraging our client base to be innovators.’
James does not intend to be overly disparaging of our industry efforts. He is quick to point out the enormous efforts evidenced by on-the-water projects to reduce our carbon footprint, the fact that our industry already uses the most highly recyclable build materials, all while alternatives such as synthetic teak decking are constantly being innovated and implemented. He is reminded however of a quote by Bill Gates - “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and under estimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
This is not to say that we will not be seeing AQUA hit the water in the next five to ten years. Equipped with cutting-edge technology, spectacular amenities and a design that got the whole industry talking, AQUA is so much more than her propulsion system. The superyacht represents an uncensored commitment to sustainability with no compromise on luxury, and is ready to build today.
In her hydrogen-powered form however, she is symbolic of Lateral’s industry-wide vision for the future of yachting. Understandably, achieving ‘zero’ on this scale will come with its challenges. But there are fundamental choices we can make in the now that will inch us one step closer to that reality, James tells us.
‘All too often we see projects which haven’t actually made the right fundamental choices from an authentic sustainability narrative.
They’re trying to use sticking plasters later on by using “green technology”, when actually if they’d made different choices at the beginning they could have had a more authentically sustainable project.
The word sustainability we’re now using very broadly in our industry, without a lot of context, and we probably need to get smarter about how we talk about sustainability.’
It is the responsibility of our industry’s experts to educate clients about these choices, to fight against the incremental pace of change and intimidating prospect of risk, and to encourage owners to be true innovators. You never know what they might achieve.
"We need to get smarter about how we talk about sustainability."