In a significant development, for the very first time, developers across the globe are testing the usage of hydrogen to power ships. The development comes as the maritime industry races to find technologies to slash carbon emissions; there is also a growing confidence that LNG can be used safely commercially.
The United Nations has set goals for the shipping industry with industry leaders saying the first net-zero ships must enter the global fleet by 2030. Hydrogen powered ships could help achieve the UN set target.
Green hydrogen, created using electrolysis which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from renewable energy, the fuel is emissions free.
Last month, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell reiterated its commitment to hydrogen, saying it saw it as “advantaged over other potential zero-emissions fuels for shipping”.
There is a flipside to using it though. Since it is far less dense than other fuels, storing it onboard will require additional storage space. This is one of the reasons why the fuel is more feasible for vessels intended for short voyages.
Swiss-headquartered ABB is working on hydrogen fuel cell systems, including those used for cargo and passenger ships. One of its projects involves developing a fuel cell-based power and propulsion system for a new-build river vessel along France’s Rhone river.
“ABB sees short-distance shipping as the first adopters of the fuel cell technology,” said Juha Koskela, division president, ABB Marine & Ports.
According to risk management firm DNV GL, green hydrogen fuel costs nearly 4-8 times the price of very low sulphur fuel oil. Other types of hydrogen are cheaper though, but only because they are produced using fossil fuel. The price of green hydrogen is expected to fall in price over the next couple of decades with increased adoption as well as with falling costs of renewable energy and electrolysers.
For companies to adopt the technology en masse, it will require a significant boost in associated infrastructure including, refueling, transportation, electrolysers, compressors, storage, tanks and pipelines.
While it took 20 years to establish the refueling infrastructure of liquefied natural gas, said Christos Chryssakis, it may be quicker for hydrogen; however the industry estimates that billions of dollars worth in investments have to be poured in. Regulations could hasten the process.
Norway has passed legislation that all ferries and cruise ships sailing through its pristine heritage-protected fjords must be emissions-free by 2026; this has prompted shipping companies to consider fuel combinations including hydrogen.
Case in point, Norwegian-headquartered ship designer and ship yard Ulstein is already working on building a support ship for the offshore oil sector that would use hydrogen as one power option.
“Rather than wait for hydrogen bunker infrastructure to be matured, we went for a hybrid design using a containerised solution for the hydrogen storage tanks,” said Ulstein’s Nick Wessels. He went on to add, the company is also working on a separate hydrogen project for wind installation turbine vessels.
According to officials from Norways municipalities, they have launched a tender process, which includes the development of hydrogen-powered, high-speed vessels by 2022.
Following Norways lead are other countries including Belgium.
Belgium’s Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB) has already built its first hydrogen-powered passenger shuttle boat in 2017. It is scheduled to deliver a hydrogen-powered ferry to Japan by April 2021. It will be the first hydrogen-powered ferry in Asia. The company is also involved in a tug boat project with the port of Antwerp, said CMB’s chief executive Alexander Saverys.
Spain’s port of Valencia is also set to deploy a prototype machinery, including for box container handling operations, as early as 2021; Britain’s Felixstowe port is looking into hydrogen, based on its proximity to offshore windfarms and a nuclear power plant.