Technology & Science

Greener B.C. research ship to use fuel cells

A hybrid electric "green" research ship is being created from a former coast guard vessel in B.C.

Refitted ship to launch in late 2011

A hybrid electric "green" research ship is being created from a former coast guard vessel in B.C.

The Tsekoa II, once used for maintenance and fishery patrols, is being refitted with $17.8 million shared equally between the B.C. government and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the University of Victoria announced Tuesday. The foundation is an independent agency created by the federal government to fund research infrastructure. An additional $4.45 million comes from other sources, mostly through discounts and donations from suppliers.

The refit will equip the vessel with an all-electric propulsion system powered by batteries, fuel cells and low-emission diesel generators.

"These generators will only be used when power demands are high during long-distance cruising or submersible operations," the university said in a statement.

When fully charged, the batteries can supply all the ship's power requirements for up to eight hours, said Kim Juniper, lead scientist on the project.

The fuel cells will use hydrogen from tanks and oxygen from the air as fuel. 

Like batteries, fuel cells generate electricity from an electrochemical reaction. But while batteries are closed systems that encase all the chemicals involved in the reaction, chemical fuel such as hydrogen and oxygen must be fed into a fuel cell. Products generated from the chemical reaction, such as water, are released.

History of the Tsekoa II

The Tsekoa II was built in 1985 by Allied Shipbuilders of Vancouver for Public Works Canada, which used it to support the construction, maintenance and repair of buoys, docks and other structures in small harbours along the B.C. coast. It was sold in the early 1990s to the Canadian Coast Guard, which used it for maintenance and fishery patrols.

Without the thundering noise of diesel engines from the ship, researchers on board will be able to perform "acoustically sensitive" studies on sound in the ocean or marine mammals, the university noted.

The ship will be used for research off the coast of B.C. on changing coastal ecosystems, marine resources and continental shelf and slope dynamics, mainly by researchers from the University of Victoria, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Island University and the University of Alberta. It will also deploy a remotely operated vehicle called ROPOS to service two underwater observatories off the coast of B.C., Venus and Neptune Canada.

The Tsekoa II refit will include a number of other changes to the vessel:

  • A new section containing a science lab and additional berths for 15 crew and scientists will be inserted in the middle of the ship, extending its length from 26.7 metres to 33 metres.
  • It will be equipped with A-frames, winch pads and cranes for deploying plankton nets, scientific instruments and remotely operated vehicles
  • A portable, multi-beam sonar will be installed for mapping the sea floor with high resolution.
  • A lab will be built into a shipping container that can be placed on the rear deck or removed when necessary using a crane.

The refit is expected to take several months, once a contract has been awarded.

The university hopes the ship will be relaunched in 2011 with a new name, which has not yet been chosen.

The funding announcement also included $4.4 million from the B.C. government and matching funds from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to $4.4 million to expand the Venus undersea observatory in the Strait of Georgia and Saanich Inlet.