April 8

Understanding Marine Electrics: The Challenges of Using Fuel Cells on Boats

In this blogpost, we're going to talk about fuel cells on boats. With the growing interest in renewable energy and new ways to store energy, fuel cells seem like an interesting option. However, as someone who has been involved in several fuel cell projects with significant investment, Nigel has come across challenges to optimizing fuel cell installations on boats.

Hydrogen Storage Challenges

The most common type of fuel cell used on boats requires hydrogen as a fuel source. However, boats do not have hydrogen storage capabilities. This means that alternative methods need to be used to obtain hydrogen, including cracking hydrocarbons to extract the hydrogen content. Although this can be done, the efficiency of the process is low. For example, the most popular fuel cell used in boats and RVs, sold by EFOY and using methanol as the hydrogen source, has a high cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. Over the life of the fuel cell, including the cost of fuel and potential reconditioning or replacement of the fuel cell itself, the cost of electricity can be 10 to 20 times higher than buying electricity from the grid.

Environmental Concerns

Apart from the high cost, the conversion ratio of hydrocarbons such as methanol into electricity is low. Only about one-third of the electricity is produced per liter of fuel compared to a well-optimized AC generator or an alternator on the main engine of a boat when underway. Surprisingly, this means that using fuel cells on boats may not be environmentally efficient when compared to other methods of generating electricity on board.

Failed Projects

There have been several failed fuel cell projects that were initiated with high hopes of using readily available fuels as the hydrogen source. For example, a project that aimed to crack diesel to obtain the hydrogen was abandoned due to trace impurities in the fuel that affected the fuel cell performance, and another that used propane as the fuel source was abandoned due to impurities in the propane fuel.


Fuel cells may seem like an attractive option for generating clean energy on boats, but there are significant challenges that still need to be overcome before they become a viable and cost-effective solution. These challenges include the lack of hydrogen supply on shore and no storage capabilities on boats, safety concerns associated with high-pressure storage of hydrogen, low conversion efficiency of hydrocarbons into electricity, and impurities in alternative fuel sources. 

Despite the potential benefits of fuel cells, the current technology and infrastructure are not yet mature enough for widespread use on boats. As a result, other methods of generating electricity, such as diesel generators or alternators, may still be more efficient and cost-effective options for boaters. 

If you want to learn, how to power your boat from alternative energy sources, you should talk a look at the module on this topic which is included in our Boat Electrics 101 course!

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