If all had gone well, the hydrogen fuel cell-powered New Clermont would be steaming its way up the Hudson River right now, to the roar of adulation from the throngs gathered on the bank. Instead, it’s marooned in New Hamburg, near Beacon, as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) students who built her frantically try to figure out what’s wrong.

“We’re working on the boat as we speak,” said William Gathright, founder of the New Clermont Project, designed to commemorate the 202nd anniversary of Robert Fulton’s original Clermont steam craft and its journey from New York City to Albany.

“Just as Fulton sought to sought to prove the feasibility of steam power to the world, the New Clermont Project aims to prove the viability of green, pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells as a power source,” the group says. But to prove their case, it would be better if the 22-foot boat were moving.

Under the hood, so to speak, are two Plug Power 2.2-kilowatt fuel cells, built for replace batteries in forklift trucks. The boat makes around three horsepower, which is enough to get it moving four to seven miles per hour (depending on the tide).

The kickoff in New York was immediately beset with problems, because, as the New Clermont website recounts, the water was too choppy from Carnival line cruise ships for the 22-foot boat to tie up to Pier 84. That messed up the carefully planned press launch.

The second day’s journey on September 22, from Ossining (legendary home of Sing-Sing prison) north to Beacon was fraught, too, because one of the two cells quit and the current cut speeds to something like 2 mph. But they managed to keep moving, only resorting to the auxiliary gas engine to reach the dock in choppy water at Beacon. (Seems a shame that the waiting press had to see the boat coming in under fossil-fuel power.)

And the New Clermont is still docked, as the team—which includes nine students, only two of whom are in the boat at any one time—try to deal with what Gathright calls “a few more technical difficulties.” Scratching his head, he said, “There’s something funny about the interplay of two individually fine components, and it’s pesky to track it down. We’re still in diagnosis mode.”

At least they’re broken down within sight of Pete Seeger’s house. The Clearwater crew has been very helpful to the New Clermont team, Gathright said.

The voyagers can console themselves that fuel cells are known to be finicky, and I’ve seen many engineering teams bent over their laptops trying to figure out what’s wrong. In this case, it seems to be cells that don’t play well with others.

“Our Plug Power GenDrive fuel-cell units work wonderfully in the context of the materials handling environment, to power the forklifts for which they were designed,” says the blog. “The trolling motors we are using are flawless in the typical application attached to marine batteries. But combine the fuel cell units and the motors with some improbably long cables and the Law of Unintended Consequences takes effect.”

Despite their high-tech gloss, fuel cells are ancient. The principle—making electricity from the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen—goes back to 1839, when Sir William Robert Grove (1811-1896), a larger-than-life figure who doubled as a barrister defending accused murderers, first demonstrated his “gas battery.” Grove also showed off a filament lightbulb before Edison. His fuel cell sat dormant until it got used in early space missions—providing clean drinking water and electricity.

Now fuel-cell vehicles are old hat, even if we haven’t been able to commercialize them yet because of high hydrogen and vehicle costs. But the technology continues to make rapid progress, and Honda, GM, Toyota and many others have very capable fuel-cell prototypes on the road. So we’re ready for a fuel-cell boat. And teething pains will eventually give way to regular sightings of hydrogen-powered craft on the mighty Hudson.

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