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The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay, on July 10, 2008.JONATHAN HAYWARD/ The Canadian Press

The federal government has issued a tender calling for the design of low-emission Canadian Coast Guard ships that would incorporate hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The three offshore fisheries science vessels are intended to replace four aging coast guard ships and would be stationed on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They are part of the fleet under Ottawa's $33-billion national shipbuilding procurement announced last year.

The tender said the government plans to spend about $332,000 to look into integrating hydrogen fuel cell technology into the new ships, which would be constructed at the Seaspan Marine Corp. shipyard in Vancouver.

Zuomin Dong, a professor in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Victoria, lauded the move as a great step for marine technology in Canada.

"Hybrid technology is for sure, no doubt beneficial," said Mr. Dong in an interview.

When compared to a traditional vessel, fuel cells have significantly lower emissions, improved fuel economy and produce less noise, the tender said.

Mr. Dong said when vessels are cruising at sea, diesel engines are highly efficient. However, when the ship glides into port, the engines are not operating at full power and their efficiency can drop to less than 50 per cent, he said.

"The emissions can double or triple. It just goes up and up."

Fuel cells, which continuously convert hydrogen fuel into electricity, have made a mark in the automotive industry, but have yet to break into the commercial marine sector.

"Canada is the leading nation in hydrogen fuel cell technology," said Mr. Dong.

"To apply it to marine … you open the market – open a new window of commercial opportunities to this industry."

The Public Works contract proposes a hybrid fuel cell and diesel electric propulsion system to power the ships. The tender closed last week.

Federal officials did not return messages Friday, but the government's intention was to award the contract to the Ontario-based Alion Science and Technology Canada, according to the tender.

Public Works is required to issue a tender signalling other suppliers that may be capable of meeting the requirements.

The tender said the aim of the project is to install a hydrogen fuel cell in the range of 1,500 kilowatts. But Mr. Dong warned that may be a stretch unless the government is willing to fork over millions of dollars.

"This translates into a very, very high cost. That is a concern I have," said Mr. Dong.

He said based on similar technology the university has developed, he believes each hydrogen fuel cell system would cost more than $6 million.

"There are technical challenges. Those challenges will be identified during the design process."

The tender anticipates some of those challenges. Fitting a fuel cell and its associated systems into a vessel without taking up too much space will be difficult, it said. It also cited fuel storage as a potential issue.

Construction of the ships is expected to begin in 2013 as part of Seaspan's $8-billion contract to build seven non-combat vessels.

The ships would conduct fishing and acoustic surveys of fish and collect information on the distribution and biology of marine species, among other tasks.

Two of the 55-metre vessels are intended for the Atlantic coast, while the other would be stationed in the Pacific.

It's not the only marine fuel cell initiative being pursued in the country.

Last year, the University of Victoria was awarded $13.3 million from the British Columbia government to refit a coast guard vessel into a hybrid fuel cell and plug-in research ship, but the project has been delayed, said Mr. Dong.

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