The benefits of hydrogen power remain tantalisingly out of reach for the time being, but that is not stopping pioneers in the sector pushing for more megawatts and improved storage
With much encouragement from the authorities in Brussels, it seems Norway and France are doing most of the running in hydrogen-powered shipping.
Sustainable energy group Norwegian Electrical Systems (NES) is the technology brains behind a consortium called FreeCO2ast that aims to put a liquid hydrogen fuel cell-powered cruise ship on the water by 2023.
The largest of its type, at least in shipping terms, the fuel cell will boast an output of 3.2 MW, enough to propel the vessel for long distances along the coast, according to NES senior vice-president for sales, Stein Ruben Larsen.
Designed by Hayvard for shipowner Havila, the fuel will be delivered by a bunkering vessel or a truck, and then stored onboard in a liquid hydrogen tank.
The FreeCO2ast project is the latest vote of confidence in fuel-cell technology, in part because more good hydrogen is being produced – that is, using sustainable techniques rather than fossil fuel technology, a major stumbling block until recently. The maritime industry is also piggybacking on fast-improving technology in land-based power.
For instance Sweden’s PowerCell, which will provide the propulsion for the FreeCO2ast project, unveiled in late 2019 a more compact and robust version of its MS-100 fuel-cell system with a maximum output of 100 kW. “[The cell] has improved operating life-time and robustness for demanding applications on land and sea,” the company announced.
As the volume of environmentally acceptable hydrogen grows, governments are beginning to see the potential of fuel cells. In February 2020 Germany, a leader in the race for zero-emission energy, aired a national hydrogen strategy that aims to produce it from energy provided by offshore windfarms, some of them anchored far out to sea. According to the proposal, which awaits official approval: “Wind energy at sea is an attractive technology for generating renewable electricity which can be used for the production of CO2-free hydrogen.”
French container line CMA CGM has also jumped on the hydrogen band wagon. With government backing, the shipping giant has thrown its weight behind Energy Observer, a hydrogen-powered experimental vessel now sailing around the world.
Executive officer Tanya Saade Zeenny has pledged the group will “accelerate the development of tomorrow’s energy solutions, particularly hydrogen” while chief executive Rodolphe Saade is on board too, tweeting that the partnership will “contribute to speeding up the use of hydrogen as one of the energy sources for tomorrow.”
The shipping group’s research describes hydrogen in fulsome terms: “Hydrogen is a limitless energy source that generates up to four times more energy than coal and three times more than diesel.”
And just a month earlier, a heavyweight French consortium launched a project to turn Bordeaux and its port into a hydrogen hub for industry and mobility, the latter including shipping. The consortium, which combines underground storage specialist Storengy, the port and other parties, is building on yet another powerful partnership that has grown out of France’s ambitions to become the European capital of renewable hydrogen. The latter involves energy giant Engie Solutions and chemical group Nouryon, whose sodium chlorate is a feedstock for hydrogen.
Although it is early days, the Bordeaux initiative could prove to be another game-changer for hydrogen in shipping. Located on the Atlantic coast, the port is a hub for all kinds of bulk goods as well as passenger traffic. Its seven terminals are spread along the Gironde estuary.
And in a step forward in the roll-out of the essential land-based infrastructure, in February Hyundai contracted French automotive supplier Faurecia, which aims to become a leader in fuel cells, to supply a 10,000-tank storage system. The first tanks are due to be delivered as soon as next year.
In February, a powerful group of regional governments, shipping, road and rail companies signed up to an all-hydrogen initiative for transport all the way between the ports of Rotterdam and Genoa. The parties issued a declaration of intent that all transport along the so-called Rhine-Alps corridor will run on hydrogen. To date, nearly all the freight is borne by fossil-fuelled transport, including barges.
Called RH2INE, the project will start by installing hydrogen bunkering infrastructure along the route. “This will enable the first 10-15 inland tankers to run on hydrogen in coming years,” the parties said. They include all the relevant regional ministries, the ports, several maritime companies including Future Proof Shipping, which is dedicated to zero-emissions sailing.
Setting an example
A lot of money, political weight and science is being thrown at increasing the power of fuel cells. Brussels handed €10M in late January to the ShipFC project under which the offshore vessel, LNG-powered Viking Energy, will be retrofitted in late 2023 with a 2 MW cell that is designed to drive the ship for up to 3,000 hours solely on clean fuel. The fuel will be green ammonia and the cells – or power train – will be solid oxide.
Although Viking Energy is just 95 m in length, the EU is using it as a stepping stone for more ambitious targets. The goal is to ensure that a large fuel cell can deliver total electric power to shipboard systems safely and effectively, as well as to scale up fuel cells for long-range sailing.
Viking Energy is a landmark undertaking that involves no less than 14 countries and institutions. It will be the first ammonia-powered fuel cell to be installed on any vessel, but the longer-term plan is to test it on other vessel types, including two cargo ships. Running alongside the Viking Energy project, ShipFC is experimenting with hydrogen-powered, proton exchange membrane fuel cells on two other vessels.
The political winds are blowing in the right direction. “I see a pivotal role for clean hydrogen [and] it is an area where Europe is leading,” said Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, in late 2019.
Until Viking Energy takes to the seas, all eyes though will be on Norled’s fast ferry, due for launch in 2021. Developed by a consortium comprising Norled, builder Selfa Arctic, naval architect LMG Marin and Servogear, the hydrogen-fuelled vessel will be capable of speeds of up to 45 knots, quite fast enough to attract the shipping world’s attention. “We believe the solutions we are developing together with our partners will be directly applicable to many types of vessels,” said LMG Marin project manager Frederic Collin.
Simultaneously with the ferry’s construction, the parties are developing bunkering infrastructure.
Hurdles to overcome
Although the promise of hydrogen fuel cells is high, the technical hurdles remain formidable. Probably the biggest of these is how to scale them up to power big deep-sea vessels, rather than the short-haul ferries that will be the first adopters. Currently, the biggest installations pack a punch of just 100 kW, not nearly enough to replace an internal combustion engine; and certainly far from powerful enough to do away with the giant diesel engines on a cruise ship.
However, as fuel cell group Ballard Power Systems says, the cruise industry is awake to the potential. “We are working on a megawatt-scale fuel-cell product with ABB Marine & Port for the cruise-ship market,” director Guy McAree says. “This would be a land-based system to provide electricity to power hotel operations onboard when the ships are docked.”
As ABB Marine & Ports’ global product manager for energy storage and fuel cells Jostein Bogen said: “[ABB is developing] a large hydrogen power solution for a passenger vessel as an add-on to the existing propulsion system.”
Meantime, short-sea companies are knocking on Ballard’s door. “We are very involved in the marine sector [but] primarily focused on propulsion for smaller craft, like passengers and car ferries and river push boats,” adds Mr McAree.
Ballard, which pioneered fuel cells in the USA, is chasing much bigger megawatts. “In the future, other heavy-load applications could be addressed by large-scale fuel-cell systems,” predicts Mr McAree.
For the moment though, most experts believe hydrogen fuel cells will be limited to the supply of purely supplemental energy for bigger ships. “The potential we see currently is for hydrogen fuel cells as a range extender where pure battery installations fall short,” explains Anders Valland, ocean research manager for maritime energy at Trondheim, Norway-headquartered Sintef. “This would be for smaller vessels travelling at low speeds and/or short distances.”
Although fuel cell science is pulling out all the stops to boost megawatts, for the foreseeable future the technology will be limited to the provision of auxiliary power.
Storage continues to hamper hydrogen take-up
An abundant element in the atmosphere, hydrogen is seen as one of the fuels of the future as shipping hurries to a carbon-neutral deadline of 2050. Highly versatile, it can be converted into an energy carrier, for instance when produced from carbon-neutral resources such as sustainably derived electricity. But, as classification society DNV GL points out in its latest Energy Transition Outlook, “alternatively, carbon-neutral H₂ can made from natural gas (with carbon capture and storage) or from nuclear energy.”
Hydrogen can also provide the basis for different electro-fuels – or e-fuels. “Electro-fuels is an umbrella term for synthetic fuels such as diesel, methane and methanol when they are produced from H₂ and CO₂ (carbon-based fuels), or from H₂ and nitrogen (nitrogen-based fuels),” explains DNV GL.
Meantime, the big hurdle for deep-sea sailing is storage. “An unsolved problem is that storage of hydrogen is not practical for larger vessels covering long distances,” DNV GL Maritime’s senior project engineer Lars Langfeldt says. “The only technology that may be promising is liquid organic hydrogen carriers [but] they still require a lot of space and are technically complex. But at least they solve the problem of very large fuel tanks at extremely low temperatures or at very high temperatures.” Fuel cells will be in common use in many land-based applications such as long-distance buses, trucks and trains long before they are used in shipping, he predicts.
But the problems are not insoluble and says Mr Langfeldt, “deep-sea applications could be possible around 2035.”