Nøé is the codename for the project to build a 35m ferry powered by hydrogen fuel cells for the islands of Ouessant and Molène off the western-most tip of the Brittany peninsula. Ouessant is also known in English as Ushant. “We’ve had our eye on this for close to eight years”, said Barillec CEO Maurice Buttet.
The 200-strong Brittany-based company is part of the Vinci group’s Actemium network specialising in onboard electrical systems. Since 1957, Barillec has installed electrical systems on vessels ranging from 35 to 140 metres. The company has worked on tuna boats for Africa, longliners for Kerguelen, Genavir’s Pourquoi Pas?, seismic vessels for GeofieLD, offshore installations, and even the bateaux mouches restaurant boats on the Seine. “We are a ‘glocal’ or global/local company. Our company retains the spirit of an SME while our group has a global presence and provides strong backing,” says CEO Maurice Buttet. “It’s a good mix: we have a solid group and the agility of a much smaller company.” After sixty years in the business, Barillec says it owes its reputation to demanding shipbuilders. “We specialise in power conversion and onboard energy management. We are solution architects in that we assemble the building blocks — each item of equipment is carefully sourced from trusted suppliers — which we modify and optimise. We gain as much leverage as possible from the software, a key aspect in maximising onboard energy savings.” Barillec engineers’ knowledge of the vessels they work on stems from regular inspection and measurement campaigns conducted with a view to improving the efficiency of onboard electrical installations. They also know that crews often have neither the time nor the expertise to manage complex systems. “That’s why we offer turnkey solutions with integrated support, typically in the form of remote maintenance. Given that we cannot expect fishermen to understand the details of sophisticated electrical systems, it’s our job to make them as simple as possible and to keep them reliable throughout the vessel’s working life.”
Renewable energy at sea
“By combining our experience with integrated turnkey systems and the latest technologies, we develop solutions that could not have been imagined a few years ago.” Innovation means both keeping up with the latest developments in electrical engineering while promoting local innovation where needed. “We pay close attention to developments in marine renewable energy where one of the major challenges is managing intermittent generation and smoothing the power fed to the network.” When developing a new source of energy, storage is always a challenge. Several technologies exist — including short-term electrostatic storage using supercapacitors; and electrochemical storage, most recently in the form of lithium batteries, particularly for hybrid propulsion systems. Then there’s the hydrogen route. Passing an electric current through water causes the oxygen and hydrogen to separate through a process known as electrolysis. The hydrogen molecules (H2) can then be recovered and stored in a fuel cell. To use the hydrogen as a fuel involves the reverse reaction, which is to say the oxidation, with the attendant release of electrons resulting in an electric current. “We propose to store surplus electricity produced by, say, a tidal stream generator and store it in fuel cells that could then provide onboard power.”
(© BARILLEC - COPREXMA)
Two 1-MW fuel cells and a shore-based prototype
But where on earth could one find a boat close to a source of surplus renewable energy? The answer is the Penn Ar Bed ferries serving the islands of Ouessant and Molène and the Sabella D10 tidal stream turbine recently trialled in the Fromveur Strait off Ouessant. “We have also managed to attract the interest of several partners, including shipbuilder Piriou, the Penn Ar Bed ferry operator, naval architecture bureau Coprexma, hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer Symbio FCell, and the ENSM (École Nationale Supérieure Maritime) engineering school.” The project, a candidate for sponsorship by the Brittany maritime cluster (Pôle Mer Bretagne Atlantique), is likely to last five years. “The first phase involved the development of a draft design by Coprexma.” The design uses hydrogen fuel cells by Symbio FCell similar to the types already selected for various electric vehicle and off-highway machinery programmes. The company is currently developing a 1-MW fuel cell. “We envisage a 300-kW propulsion system powered by two 1-MW fuel cells.”
The second phase will involve building a shore-based prototype. “It will be a half-boat that will allow us to simulate the proposed system components and the fuel cells enclosure. Later, we plan to use it for crew training. The idea is to test fuel cell behaviour, heat release and recovery and system management as well as anomalies and incidents. We will also document procedures for regulatory compliance.” The next stage will concern fuel cell marinisation, not least how the system responds to the presence of salt, which it may attract along with oxygen. “We have our work cut out for us, but we are convinced that our project — combining innovation, renewable energy conversion and local development — is viable,” said Barillec CEO Maurice Buttet.
Written by Caroline Britz, translated by Steve Dyson