UC San Diego Gets Funding for New Hydrogen-Hybrid Research Vessel

California legislators have allocated UC San Diego $35 million to design and build a new coastal research vessel with a first-of-its-kind hydrogen-hybrid propulsion system.

The new vessel, which will be operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, will serve as a platform for essential education and research dedicated to understanding the California coast and climate change impacts to the coastal ecosystem.

California’s ocean is the source of food, jobs, health and recreation, and vital to the $44 billion annual coastal economy. Especially relevant to the economic vitality of California include issues such as the health of marine fisheries, harmful algal blooms, severe El Niño storms, atmospheric rivers, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and oxygen depletion zones. This new vessel will be dedicated to California research missions, and will enable scientists to observe and measure biological, chemical, geological and physical processes associated with a variety of environmental issues.

“Scripps Institution of Oceanography has guided countless UC San Diego students, faculty, and staff through invaluable scientific projects aboard the Robert Gordon Sproul, and conducted groundbreaking research on climate change and the impact of plastics in our oceans,” said Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins. “After a four-decade run, it is high time Scripps built a new research vessel that can keep up with the high-caliber work they continue to churn out, and help our state navigate the troubled waters of sea level rise and our evolving climate.”

2 siocomm A CA Ship Tracks 2020 2Scripps research vessels have enabled research and education programs vital to California’s economy and quality of life. The tracklines of Scripps research vessels shown here represent efforts during the period 2011-2018, involving more than 4,400 researchers, students and instructors aboard 298 separate missions that used 1,123 operational days at sea along the length of California’s coast. The demand for ocean information, education, and technology development continues to grow—and requires a next-generation research vessel to fulfill the demand.

The proposed 125-foot vessel will take three years to design, build, and commission, and replace Research Vessel Robert Gordon Sproul, which has served thousands of University of California students in its nearly 40 years of service but is nearing completion of its service life. UC San Diego is a student-centered, research-focused public university, and seagoing experiences are a cornerstone of educational programs for graduate and undergraduate students. This new vessel will continue the university’s educational mission to train the next generation of scientists, leaders, and policymakers.  

“With 840 miles of coastline, it is important for California to manage its access to the vast resources of the Pacific Ocean,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “To do that, we need to better understand our coastal environments, and how climate change is affecting them. That’s where Scripps Institution of Oceanography can help. This new state-of-the-art research vessel will expand our capability to understand and protect our coastline and train UC San Diego undergraduate and graduate students through unparalleled hands-on learning.”

The hybrid-hydrogen design of this new vessel represents an innovation in the maritime industry. Development of this and subsequent zero-emission vessels is essential to the University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative, the goal to be carbon neutral by 2025. Currently, emissions from diesel engines on ships contribute to greenhouse gases and pollution. This new vessel will feature an innovative hybrid propulsion system that integrates hydrogen fuel cells alongside a conventional diesel-electric power plant, enabling zero-emission operations. The design is scaled so the ship will be able to operate 75 percent of its missions entirely using a non-fossil fuel—hydrogen—with only pure water and electricity as reaction products.

For longer missions, extra power will be provided by clean-running modern diesel generators. The vessel represents a major step in advancing California’s pledge to reduce global climate risk while transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy.

4 siocomm A UG StudentsAboardSproul2019 0722Students take part in a deep-sea biology field course led by biological oceanographer Lisa Levin and graduate student Natalya Gallo aboard R/V Robert Gordon Sproul in 2015. Photo credit: Cody Gallo.

“Our vision is to build an uncompromising, fully capable oceanographic research vessel that can be powered independently from fossil fuels, and be free from the criteria pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions that diesel-powered ships emit,” said Bruce Appelgate, associate director and head of ship operations at Scripps Oceanography. “In doing so, we hope to both serve our scientists and students while being a world leader for transformational change to clean, nonpolluting shipboard power systems.”

The vessel will be equipped with instruments and sensing systems, including acoustic Doppler current profilers, seafloor mapping systems, midwater fishery imaging systems, biological and geological sampling systems, and support for airborne drone operations. These capabilities, along with state-of-the-art laboratories, will enable broadly multidisciplinary research, advancing our understanding of the physical and biological processes active in California’s coastal oceans.

It is envisioned that the vessel will carry up to 45 students and teachers to sea on day trips, improving the university’s capacity for experiential learning at sea. UC graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and early-career faculty will also be able to apply for research time at sea through the UC Ship Funds Program, which provides support for expeditions on Scripps vessels through a competitive peer-reviewed proposal process. The feasibility study to conceptualize the hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion technology for the vessel was initially completed in 2020, by Sandia National Laboratories, Glosten, and Scripps. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration.

4 siocomm A UG StudentsAboardSproul2019 0722Undergraduate students spend the day aboard the R/V Robert Gordon Sproul as part of Fiamma Straneo’s Observational Physical Oceanography class. The purpose of the expedition was to train and expose students to the collection of physical oceanographic observations including CTDs, underway data, surface ocean data, bathymetry, and surface drifters. 

In addition to the state funds for this vessel, the budget includes essential environmental research to UC San Diego including $15 million towards the ALERTWildfire program to help reach the goal of 1,000 wildfire camera installations in California by 2022; $10 million towards the Department of Water Resources atmospheric rivers research program to expand forecast-informed reservoir operations and support advanced observations, forecasts, and decision support of atmospheric river precipitation events, the storms that account for 50 percent of California’s total annual precipitation and 90 percent of its flooding; and $1.5 million for the State Parks Oceanography program to support sea-level rise forecasts, advance cliff erosion monitoring and predictions, and sustain real-time wave condition data and coastal ocean observations maintained by the Coastal Data Information Program at Scripps.

“The environmental phenomena we study are profoundly important and connected to the economic vitality of California,” said Margaret Leinen, vice chancellor for marine sciences at UC San Diego and director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “The research conducted through Scripps programs and on this vessel will provide decision makers essential resources and information needed to develop science-based policy and climate resilience solutions.”

Scripps Oceanography will also petition that the new coastal vessel serve as a shared-use facility within the U.S. Academic Research Fleet under the auspices of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). When completed, it will join the fleet of vessels managed by Scripps including the Navy-owned research vessels Sally Ride and Roger Revelle, which conduct global oceanographic research, and the R/V Bob and Betty Beyster, a nearshore scientific workboat. All research vessels are stationed and maintained at the university’s Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma.

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