The Ross Barlow: a zero-emission hydrogen hybrid canal boat

”One of the most energy efficient means of moving goods is by canal and the threats of global warming and oil depletion are resulting in a resurgence of interest in this means of transportation”: Professor Rex Harris. 

A zero-emission hydrogen hybrid canal boat has been developed by engineers at the University of Birmingham. The Ross Barlow shows how a combination of magnet and fuel cell technologies could be used to power inland waterways craft.


It was named after Ross Barlow, a postgraduate student who worked on the hydrogen hybrid canal boat project in its early stages and was an enthusiastic supporter of sustainable energy. He was killed in a hang gliding accident in March 2005 at the age of 25.

 The diesel engine was removed from a standard maintenance boat, donated to the University by British Waterways, and replaced by a zero emission propulsion system and the central part of the boat has been converted into a covered demonstration area. 

Professor Rex Harris, project leader from the School of Engineering’s Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University said: “It is widely recognised that the world has no more than twenty years to meet the urgent challenges of climate change and oil depletion.  Much can be gained from the operation of hydrogen-based demonstrators and the canal boat project represents one step in the journey towards a hydrogen society.” 

Renewable electricity can be stored as hydrogen by splitting water by electrolysis.  Hydrogen can subsequently be converted back to electricity and water by using a gas turbine or fuel cell.  Green hydrogen is considered a clean fuel as it has a minimum impact on the environment and could reduce the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Use the technology on cross-channel ferries?

Harris said: “We think the technology would work on a larger scale, and that you could think about doing something similar on cross-channel ferries and inland waterways. Road travel has got most of the attention so far, but shipping produces a lot of dirty emissions and we need to find a replacement for fossil fuels.” 

The extra weight,  a problem for vehicles, acts as ballast in boats, barges and ships

He  explained that the shipping industry was uniquely positioned to exploit his canal boat’s brand of clean power. The powder store – known as a metal hydride – could offer safer and cheaper use of hydrogen, but is much heavier than simply squashing lots of the gas into a bottle, as is typically done. This has crippled hydride use in cars, but for ships, the extra weight could be an advantage. “Ships need ballast to keep them stable,” Harris said. “We took out tonnes of concrete blocks when we converted this canal boat.” 

Longer terms aims include the development of a canal side hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and to generate green hydrogen on suitable sites throughout the canal network. The boat will also be used as an educational tool.  It features an LCD screen which displays information about sustainable technologies involving hydrogen and magnets and how these new technologies come together on the boat.  

As Professor Harris says, ‘We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to start investing heavily in future sustainable energy supplies.  However resource depletion and climate change cannot be solved purely by the introduction of new technologies  We must all make real and lasting changes to our lifestyles in order to save this precious planet.’ 

The Ross Barlow Protium Project

Protium, the most common isotope of hydrogen

See a short video of the hydrogen powered canal boat’s 65 mile journey from Birmingham to Chester in June 2010: 


More technical information is available in the source articles:,1,12828,1,27286.html

5 thoughts on “The Ross Barlow: a zero-emission hydrogen hybrid canal boat

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