Welcome aboard ­hydrogen – QRV*?

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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. Hydrogen fuel cells are regarded as a promising option for radically reducing vessel greenhouse gas emissions. Combined with more established shipboard battery technology, they have the capability to enhance energy density in zero-emission marine operations while also improving vessel endurance.

Klaus Vanska, Sami Kanerva ABB Marine & Ports Helsinki, Finland, klaus.vanska@fi.abb.com, sami.kanerva@fi.abb.com; Jostein Bogen ABB Marine & Ports Billingstad, Norway, jostein.bogen@no.abb.com; George Skinner Ballard Power Systems Vancouver, Canada

* Q codes are used in martime telecommunications as message abbreviations. QRV is short for “Are you ready?” and QUK is short for “Can you tell me the condition of the sea observed at... (place or coordinates)?”.

To achieve the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) target to cut annual emissions from shipping by at least 50 percent by 2050 from the 2008 levels [1], 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. The challenge is to help customers understand the wide range of alternatives, and the complexity of selecting the best one for their needs. Different fuels are available depending on regions, market demands, operational and trading patterns, and more.

Among these are biodiesel, fuels from biomass including waste, and renewable sources including solar, wave and wind. It’s possible to bind the electricity generated by renewables and use it to split molecules and create hydrogen. It’s also possible to generate synthetic fuels, ammonia, methane or methanol.

Production of these fuels is largely based on the fossil fuels of today, but all of them can be renewable in the future. Tried and trusted 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. Within the scope of renewables, the costs of different fuels may be similar, but the differentiators will be in the way in which they are used, as well as their availability.

In April 2018, IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) adopted an initial strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships. In the mid- and long-term, new marine propulsion technologies and low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels will be needed to decarbonize the sector.
In April 2018, IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) adopted an initial strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships. In the mid- and long-term, new marine propulsion technologies and low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels will be needed to decarbonize the sector.

A new position
All fuel alternatives have their inherent challenges: for example, hydrogen has very low energy density and needs to be compressed and cooled so that it is practical to transport and store it. 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 straightforward blanket solution. To meet the coming demand 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 these countries still faces challenges in transporting the energy to where it will be used.

01 ABB and Ballard Power Systems are jointly developing zero-emission fuel cells for the marine industry.
01 ABB and Ballard Power Systems are jointly developing zero-emission fuel cells for the marine industry.

ABB and Ballard Power Systems have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on developing next-generation fuel cell systems for the marine industry →1. The new fuel cell power system will be jointly designed, developed and validated by ABB and Ballard Power Systems, and is anticipated to play a significant part in accelerating the industry-wide adoption of sustainable solutions for marine e-mobility. Together with Ballard, ABB will leverage the existing kilowatt-scale fuel cell technologies to create a pioneering megawatt-scale solution suitable for powering larger ships →2. With a scalable solution in the megawatt range, the new system will fit within a single module no bigger in size than a traditional marine engine running on fossil fuels.

02 Representation of a PEMS hydrogen fuel cell system.
02 Representation of a PEMS hydrogen fuel cell system.

As a global provider of innovative clean energy solutions, Ballard Power Systems has years of experience in the deployment of hydrogen fuel cell systems for land-based use, with the first developments dating back to 1983. Ballard’s work with marine hydrogen as a fuel goes back to their role as advisors to the Canadian military.

“The Canadian Navy has had fuel cells in their submarines since 1993”, says George Skinner, safety expert with Ballard Power Systems. “This fact alone demystifies hydrogen as high risk – the last place you want a dangerous fuel on board is in a steel tube hundreds of meters under the sea.”

Some people’s ears prick up at the mention of hydrogen as a fuel. However hydrogen is not necessarily more dangerous or safer than other fuels – just different →3. According to Skinner, “hydrogen has a less explosive energy, it burns quicker and colder, and it disperses straight up. It is very easy to ignite, so it is important to prevent leaks, install sufficient detection systems, and always have enough ventilation. The International Code of Safety for Ships using Gases or other Low-flashpoint Fuels [2] already lays out ways to deal with it, and DNV GL is looking into improved piping systems. New codes and standards are also under development.”

03 Factbox: Demystifying hydrogen.
03 Factbox: Demystifying hydrogen.

DNV GL, a leading global quality assurance and risk management company, published the first rules for hydrogen on ships in January 2018. The rules are linked into codes and standards for other industries with a longer hydrogen history. “The basic principles are the same for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other low flashpoint fuels”, says Skinner. “Handling techniques for liquid gas are already well known, so the technology is broken in. The real challenge now is developing the infrastructure.”

Ultimately, the objective is to make a failsafe fuel cell power plant. This has been done on land, so it can be done at sea. Fuel cells have a long life and they are relatively low maintenance. Skinner is of the opinion that “the main problems with hydrogen have been connected to perceptions from the past, such as negative associations with the Hindenburg case [the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg event occurred on May 6, 1937, as it caught fire and was destroyed] – and the hydrogen bomb. In fact the hydrogen bomb is a nuclear reaction, so this is a total misrepresentation. Hydrogen is ubiquitous in industry, aerospace, and many forms of transportation.”

Skinner points out that NASA has decades of experience using hydrogen as rocket fuel, and Viking Cruises have been in discussions with NASA to learn more about loading the fuel. Ballard Power also runs its own fuel cell lab on liquid hydrogen. “We have been getting deliveries twice a week for 20 years. Getting it from shore to ship will be basically the same thing. After all,” he smiles, “it’s only rocket science.”

“Once you are set up with hydrogen, you are flexible. Regardless of how it is produced – by solar, gas, hydropower, or wind – hydrogen is the energy carrier. A good example is Denmark”, Skinner says, “where they have periodic surplus power from wind that they convert into hydrogen for later use.”

Skinner sees the trend toward marine hydrogen fuel as an exciting opportunity. “The quantities in marine will get energy companies engaged, which will solve the infrastructure conundrum. And once hydrogen is available in ports for ships it can be used to fuel trucks and other movers of goods and people. The onset of marine hydrogen will be a major catalyst for kicking off the hydrogen economy. As a first step, the cruise industry will likely look toward a hybrid solution, using fuel cells to power hotel functions in ports and when in protected fjords. Eventually they could apply hydrogen to provide power for the entire vessel, including propulsion, and hydrogen-powered fuel cells produce water that can be used for other purposes on board.”

Fuel cells combined with batteries are an important part of ABB’s “Electric. Digital. Connected.” vision for a sustainable maritime future. In Norway, ABB and the SINTEF Ocean laboratory in Trondheim are conducting test to assess how fuel cells and batteries can best function together for short-distance ferry operations, and how Norwegian shipyard Fiskerstrand can integrate them with other engine room systems. The tests will also provide insight into the introduction of hydrogen fuel cells for future reviews of the rules covering shipboard use of hydrogen.

The HYBRIDship project, started in 2017 and driven by Fiskerstrand Holding, is supported by Norway’s “Pilot-E” technology accelerator program funded by the Research Council of Norway, Innovation Norway and Enova Norwegian government enterprise. ABB’s system integration know-how, combined with SINTEF Ocean’s long-standing experience in the field of marine propulsion systems, as well as SINTEF Industry’s expertise in fuel cells technology are vital elements in the success of this project. The project is envisaging a zero-emissions passenger ship retrofitted with fuel cells operating on a domestic route by the end of 2020 and battery power will certainly be key to meeting Norway’s target for zero ship emissions in the fjords from 2026 →4.

04 The world’s first conversion of a passenger ship retrofitted with fuel cells for zero-emissions, is expected to be operating on a domestic route by the end of 2020.
04 The world’s first conversion of a passenger ship retrofitted with fuel cells for zero-emissions, is expected to be operating on a domestic route by the end of 2020.

The tests will simulate the conditions the ferry is expected to encounter on a high frequency 10km route to ensure that the propulsion systems including fuel cells are robust enough for repetitive, short-burst service duties. The project is a major step towards the practical use of the hydrogen fuel cell as a maritime propulsion technology. One of the major beneficial outcomes of these tests will be in defining the optimum engine room configuration for hydrogen fuel cells to be installed, and to work day-in, day-out, with other systems on board.

The joint ABB/SINTEF development program will also focus on finding solutions to support the hydrogen supply and bunkering infrastructure. In addition, outputs from the new tests are expected to accelerate Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) work in modifying regulations to better accommodate and approve hydrogen as a maritime fuel.

Towards autonomous shipping
In addition to their sustainable profile, fuel cells are a good match for autonomous shipping. Today’s propulsion systems are not ready to go fully autonomous due to the maintenance requirements of mechanical power trains, but fuel cells are well suited, as there are no moving parts, and little to no maintenance. This makes fuel cells suitable for the overall autonomous solution, because they can go longer without the need for on-site human intervention.

From a time perspective, alternative marine fuel solutions are in a demonstration phase at the moment. Increasingly strict environmental regulations are the main drivers of the development. Early adopters and R&D programs are showing the way, as are several ferry projects around the world.

There is also 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, it is expected that a number of alternative fuel solutions should be realized in the shipping industry fairly soon, even as early as 2025. Once renewables are used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells and stored energy for batteries, the entire chain can be clean and then one may all hope that the response to the question QUK*? will be: Clear and calm. Out. 

[1] Note by the International Maritime Organization to the UNFCCC Talanoa Dialogue, “Adoption of the initial IMO strategy on reduction of GHG emissions from ships and existing IMO activity related to reducing GHG emissions in the shipping sector,” IMO Headquarters, London, UK, Resolution MEPC.304(72), 13 Apr. 2018.
[2] International Maritime Organisation, “International Code of Safety for Ship Using Gases or Other Low-flashpoint Fuels (IGF Code)” [Online]. Available: http://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Safety/SafetyTopics/Pages/IGF-Code.aspx. [Accessed: July 10, 2019].


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