The future fuel picture: more than just hydrogen

With hydrogen fuel coming of age, marine industry experts continue to explore alternatives to fossil fuels to meet the needs of a diverse and developing industry.

The challenge, according to ABB Marine & Ports experts Klaus Vanska and Sami Kanerva, is to help customers understand the wide range of alternatives, and the complexity of selecting the best one for their needs. “Different fuels will be available depending on regions, market demands, operational and trading patterns, and more,” says Kanerva, R&D Senior Principal Engineer.

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Diversity is the key

Kanerva notes that achieving the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) target to at least halve the ship greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the industry will need to consider multiple future fuel sources. “The need cannot be met by just one or two, and each alternative fuel will have their own markets and uses,” says Kanerva.

Among these, Kanerva and Vanska name biodiesel, fuels from from biomass including waste, and renewable sources including solar, wave and wind. “We can bind the electricity generated by renewables and use it to split molecules and create hydrogen,” says Vanska, Global Business Development Manager. “We can also generate synthetic fuels, ammonia, methane or methanol.” Production of these fuels is largely based on fossil fuel today, but all of them can be renewable in the future.” He adds that the cost of fuels within renewables could be similar. “The differentiators will be in the way in which they are used, as well as their availability.”

Turning power into propulsion

Both experts point out that that the tried and true internal combustion can still be used to burn several of the alternative fuels, such as ammonia, though engine modification would be required in most cases. Fuel cells are another option.

Vanska points out that fuel cells are relatively easy to connect with current marine drive systems. “Fuel cell systems are highly scalable. Modern marine drives are already electric, so only the power plant is exchanged.”

Vanska and Kanerva agree that the public discussion has not been giving enough attention to the viability of alternative fuels. “There are concrete examples out there today that can serve to show the way for others,” says Kanerva. He cites Nikola Motors’ plans for wind and solar-powered stations to generate hydrogen to fuel their trucks. “Not only is the Nikola concept feasible, they intend to compete on price in the near future.”

With change comes challenge

That being said, the pair point out that all fuel alternatives have their inherent challenges. “For example, energy density is low for hydrogen, and liquefied H2 requires very low temperatures for transport and storage,” says Kanerva. “Ammonia is highly corrosive and needs to be cooled as well, and methanol is toxic. Each fuel requires its own transportation and storage technology. There is no straight forward blanket solution.”

They report that several countries are conducting hydrogen studies, each suited to their particular situation. “The UAE has announced hydrogen production using solar power, while Iceland is using geothermal energy. But each of the countries still has to solve the problem of transporting the energy to where it will be used.”

No single solution

Both Kanerva and Vanska believe that a combination of fuel cells and batteries may emerge as a viable marine power solution, using batteries for shorter routes and fuel cells for longer voyages. They also believe that fuel cells are a good match for autonomous shipping. “Today’s propulsion systems are not ready to go autonomous due to the maintenance requirements of mechanical power trains,” says Kanerva. “But fuel cells are well suited, as there are no moving parts, and little to no maintenance. This makes them suitable for the overall autonomous solution, because they can go longer without the need for on-site human intervention.”

As for the time perspective, the two characterize the current phase of alternative fuel solutions as a demonstration period. “Regulations are driving investigations into alternatives. Early adopters and R&D programs are showing the way, like several of the ferry projects around the world,” says Vanska. He reports a growing interest in demonstrating the feasibility of fuel cell technology for the cruise industry, with the first step being to power hotel functions emission free, also in port. “With regulations setting the agenda, we should see a number of alternative fuel solutions realized in shipping fairly soon, even as early as 2025.”

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