At first glance, the red ship hardly looks like a herald of the future. Even its owner admits the hull needs a coat of paint and the interior some spit and polish.

But in a few weeks, the Elding - Icelandic for $quot;Lightning$quot; - will be transformed into the world's first hydrogen-equipped commercial vessel, the latest sign that Iceland is pushing hard to become the first nation to break free from the constraints of fossil fuel.

Come April, visitors to Europe's northernmost capital will get a taste of that future by taking whale-watching tours aboard the ship, or renting one of the world's first hydrogen-powered hire cars.

The conversion of the Elding to hydrogen power will initially be confined to the use of a fuel cell to power the engine that runs its lighting, but for 43 euros ($A72) a trip, the ship will offer whale-watchers unprecedented peace.

When the crew spot whales at sea, they shut down the main engines to let people hear the mammals swim and blow water - an experience owner Vignir Sigursveinsson said had been marred in the past by the rumble of a diesel auxiliary engine below.

$quot;When we have the hydrogen machine, the boat will be completely soundless, which will make the experience of seeing the whales in their natural habitat even more magical,$quot; Sigursveinsson said.

Besides appealing to tourists seeking greener travel, the 155-passenger ship will take Iceland a step closer to its goal of converting its entire transport system to hydrogen by 2050.

Jon Bjorn Skulason, head of Icelandic New Energy, the venture between companies, academia and the government shepherding the process, said the ship would help show whether the fuel could work at sea: essential if Iceland wants to convert its fishing fleet, one of the world's largest.

$quot;We think, with the testing we're doing over the next two or three years, our society will be quite well prepared to accept this technology on a larger scale,$quot; Skulason said.

Icelanders seem ready to embrace hydrogen as a fuel. Skulason cited one survey that showed 93 per cent public acceptance, a fact that he attributed to the relatively few negative associations the gas has for Icelanders.
In Japan, it is sometimes linked in the public consciousness to atomic bombs, while for some in the United States it recalls the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster.

With limited global supplies of oil and gas and mounting worries about greenhouse gas emissions, the race to find an ideal green transportation fuel is gaining urgency.