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Ft. Lauderdale, FL, United States, 2006/05/19 - Hybrid propulsion is frequently touted as the latest thing these days, but it simply isn’t. Hydrogen fuel cells simply aren’t there yet, and most other forms of alternative energy resources are speculative at best
With fuel prices spiraling out of control, what used to amount to an acceptable annoyance has become a serious economic consideration. Alternative power supplies are an obvious point of investigation under the circumstances. Hydrogen fuel cells simply aren’t there yet, and most other forms of alternative energy resources are speculative at best. This leaves the next logical step to be a reexamination of the resources and technology we already have at hand. This is where hybrid technology comes in.
Here is a brief history of the evolution of hybrid fuel-electric technology…
I will follow the evolution of both the technology itself and the components of it in order to supply a more comprehensive picture.
The oldest reference to a gasoline engine I found was credited to an English engineer named Samuel Brown who modified a steam engine to burn gas in 1824, but it wasn’t until 1885 that Gottlieb Daimler was credited with inventing the forerunner of the modern gasoline engine. Later, in 1892 Dr. Rudolf Diesel patented the world’s first diesel engine using the compression ignition principle.
The electric motor was invented in 1834 by a self-educated, former blacksmith in Vermont named Thomas Davenport. He obtained a patent for his invention in 1837. The invention of rechargeable batteries to go along with that motor wouldn’t come until 1859 when developed by French physicist Gaston Planté.
Now I’m afraid that we cannot discuss hybrid fuel-electric propulsion in a marine environment without discussing submarines. You may know that submarines prior to the nuclear age were primarily powered by a combination of diesel and electric propulsion, but you may not know all the reasons.
For a submarine to propel itself underwater it cannot use an internal combustion engine, which requires large quantities of air for a carburetor, and it cannot expel exhaust, so electric propulsion is a logical solution. To increase the range of the submarine it would be nice to be able to recharge those batteries. The solution was to equip submarines with an internal combustion engine for surface cruising and recharging of the batteries and electric motors for underwater cruising. This created a great incentive to master hybrid technology at a time that it would have been cost prohibitive to consider for powering surface vessels.
The father of modern military submarines, John Holland, developed what may have been the first gas-electric propelled submarine, the Holland VI around 1897. It was certainly the first to gain notoriety and was purchased by the US Navy in 1900.
The French built the first diesel-electric submarine in 1904 called The Aigrette. The US Navy followed suit and began converting to diesel-electric submarines around 1911, and other navies throughout the world did the same. The diesel engines held advantages for submarines over gasoline such as less noxious fumes, which also happened to be highly flammable, and increased range. This remained the standard for submarines until the nuclear age.
To the credit of John Holland I have read in many places that he had attempted to acquire a diesel engine for the Holland VI, but was unsuccessful. This isn’t inconceivable since the diesel engine did exist and at the time demand exceeded supply. The remarkable thing is that anyone was even thinking about this at a time that most people hadn’t ever even seen an automobile.
The fact is that almost as soon as all the technological elements of hybrid fuel-electric systems became available someone was there waiting to use it in a hybrid system. It seems apparent that these innovators already had the idea and were waiting for the technology in one or another area to reach a usable state, and as soon as it did they used it to good effect.
In all of my research I never found any historical reference to sails implemented as a means of regeneration, which we now see on catamarans like the Lagoon 420, where electricity is generated while under sail from the turning of the props. This aspect of hybrid diesel-electric technology appears to be a recent and timely development.
Hybrid diesel-electric technology is used in Ice Breakers, Cruise Ships and Locomotives, but it came later than submarine developments of the technology. The technology has had time to evolve and has been refined over generations. It isn’t a new thing, but it does make good sense. It saves money on fuel costs, lessens impact on the environment, and makes sailors more independent.
On another note…you may have been wondering about the first hybrid fuel-electric production automobile. That wouldn’t be the Prius or the Civic, it would be the Woods Dual Power, a gasoline-electric hybrid, circa 1917.
If you’d like to try sailing a hybrid diesel-electric catamaran contact The Catamaran Company and charter one in the British Virgin Islands, or arrange to see one for sale with one of The Catamaran Company brokers.
1824 - Steam engine converted to use gasoline
1834 - Electric motor invented
1859 - Rechargeable battery invented
1885 - Modern gasoline engine invented
1892 – Diesel engine invented
1889 – First hybrid gasoline-electric submarine
1904 – First hybrid diesel-electric submarine.