$35M Allocated for Design/Build of New UC San Diego Coastal Research Vessel

California legislators have allocated $35 million for a new coastal research vessel for the University of California-San Diego, for education and research to boost understanding of the California climate change impacts on the coastal ecosystem.

The 125-foot vessel, expected to take three years for design, build and commission, would replace the research vessel Robert Gordon Sproul, which has been used for nearly 40 years to educate thousands of UC San Diego students. The vessel is to be operated by the university’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“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 troubles waters of sea level rise and our evolving climate,” said California Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins.

The hybrid-hydrogen design for the new vessel represents an innovation in the maritime industry, which is essential to the University of California’s carbon neutrality initiative with a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. The new vessel will feature a hybrid propulsion system that integrates hydrogen fuel cells alongside a conventional diesel-electric power plant, enabling zero-emission operations. The design allows the ship to operate 75% of its missions entirely using a non-fossil fuel –hydrogen – with only pure water and electricity as reaction products. For longer missions, extra power would be provided by clean-running modern diesel generators.

“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 is to 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, would allow for broadly multidisciplinary research, to advance understanding of the physical and biological processes active in California’s coastal oceans, university officials said.

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, funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration.

The budget also includes essential environmental research to UC San Diego including $15 million toward the ALERTWildfire program to help reach the goal of 1,000 wildfire camera installations in California by 2022.