Hybrid boat spreads environmental awareness


Top, Explorer is framed by the Pittsburgh skyline as it heads down the Monongahela River. Above and below, Capt. Edsel Burkholder steering from the wheelhouse and docking the vessel using the control station on the bridge wing.

Rachel Carson had a good deal of material to work with when writing Silent Spring, the book published in 1962 that is credited with launching the environmental movement. She grew up near Pittsburgh, back in the days when its air was opaque with smoke, its three rivers were thick with sludge and its birds were dying. That state of affairs has changed. That concern for the environment is also reflected in the design of RiverQuest Explorer.

“The nice thing about this boat is the reduction in pollution,” said Capt. Edsel Burkholder. “And here pollution matters.” Burkholder was at the wheel of RiverQuest Explorer, a 150-passenger, science-education vessel. This 90 feet of green technology is owned by RiverQuest, a non-profit organization committed to connecting people to their environment.

Explorer is one of the first vessels in the world engineered with a hybrid diesel electric power plant that runs on biodiesel and large battery banks. “We can cruise here on battery power with no emissions,” said Burkholder.

Burkholder was maneuvering Explorer off Point State Park where the Ohio River is formed by the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. This is a great place to study rivers.

The main deck was awash with children, one for every foot of Explorer’s length, gathering river samples to test in the boat’s labs. Located on two decks, the labs are equipped with computers, microscopes and other scientific equipment.

Alion JJMA designed the hybrid system and Siemens Energy & Automation provided the ELFA hybrid marine propulsion system.

Explorer can cruise silently and cleanly on battery power, calling upon several configurations of motor power when maneuvering is necessary. RiverQuest expects to lower its annual energy requirements and airborne emissions significantly from its existing fleet consisting of Voyager, YP-667, built in 1966, and Discovery, YP-657, built in 1958. Both vessels are former yard patrol boats employed in training mariners. The Federal Surplus Bureau donated them in 1993. At the time, RiverQuest was named Pittsburgh Voyager.

It seems unbelievable that a city once looked upon as the black hole of industry is now rated one of the greenest in the world. Pittsburgh is so green that it was chosen to host the G-20 Summit in September 2009. RiverQuest Explorer is a significant symbol of the new Pittsburgh.

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1. Chief deck hand William Rudek in the engine room with the ELFA hybrid system designed by Alion JJMA. The two diesel engines that charge the batteries run on biodiesel fuel. 2. Inverter stack of the hybrid system smooths out fluctuations and distributes power in several configurations depending on the vessel’s demands. 3. Megan Griffin with students in one of the labs, which are located on two of the decks. 4. Directed by a crewmember, a student lowers a Secchi disk into the water to measure its clarity.