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Florida Companies Promise Boats that Use Seawater as Fuel in Two Years

MarineMax CEO Bill McGill and Joi Scientific founder Traver Kennedy.EXPAND
MarineMax CEO Bill McGill and Joi Scientific founder Traver Kennedy.
Courtesy of Joi Scientific

Two Florida companies are making an extraordinary claim: they'll sell boats with motors that run on nothing but seawater in about two years.

Joi Scientific, a firm based on Merritt Island near the Kennedy Space Center, and Tampa's MarineMax contend they have a completely new technology that separates hydrogen and uses it as fuel for a motor. Such a development could transform the argument over global warming, particularly in Florida, the state most vulnerable to sea-level rise, and generally in the top three states for number of registered watercraft.

“We’ve now received six patents and are working on more,” says Joi Scientific founder Traver Kennedy. “You won’t have to go to port for refueling [and] the best thing is, there’s no harmful emissions or negative impact on the environment.”

Skeptics are easy to find. “Run your boat just on seawater? Yeah that ain’t happening,” says David Hahn, a professor and department chair of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida. “If you do that, you just won the Nobel Prize for physics and world peace.”

The idea starts with Joi Scientific, founded in 2009 by Kennedy, who was previously chief strategist for Fort Lauderdale-based software company Citrix Systems. Joi’s president and co-founder is Robert Koeneman, a former Air Force engineer.

Almost all details surrounding Joi’s technology are being kept under wraps. The only clues come from patents they are seeking or have been granted. Joi claims that three labs have certified the technology.

Kennedy says its technology is not electrolysis, a 100-year-old method that uses electrical current to split the water molecule, even though one of Joi’s patents appears to describe a similar process. It “can generate hydrogen without the use of chemicals or electrolysis [and] returns only water back into the environment,” according to Joi’s publicly available data sheet.

Joi Scientific is housed in the commercial Space Life Sciences Laboratory, a facility run by the state-funded Space Florida next to Kennedy Space Center. The company has garnered a $5.5 million investment from Dean Woodman, who also invested in GoPro.

MarineMax chairman Bill McGill, who has a background in aerospace electronics, says he’s been researching Joi for years. He says Joi’s technology is unique. “Economically it should be equal or better than what our customers are spending on fuel now,” he says. “You don’t have to spend any time fueling because you’re boating on top of your fuel, seawater. And, most important, you are not polluting.”

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McGill says Joi’s hydrogen units can simply be added to a conventional boat motor to provide fuel.

Adds Kennedy: “It’s solid state and the only moving parts are the pump. It will allow much more cargo capacity because you don’t have to carry fuel.

The biggest barrier: For years, scientists have believed that splitting the water molecule — H2O — requires more energy than would ever be produced.

“There’s nothing crazy about converting water to hydrogen,” says the University of Florida's Hahn. It’s about the efficiency. Nobody is going to make hydrogen for 100 percent efficiency. But if they have 90 percent efficiency, that would be revolutionary.”

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