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Using hydrogen as a fuel begins at sea
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 18:39

Ships are a good place to start in the development of a hydrogen economy aimed at achieving long-term emissions reductions. In a future envisaged by Professor John Andrews’ of RMIT University in Australia, a hierarchy of coastal and offshore production, storage and distribution centres could service hydrogen-fuelled ships. As the network grows, it could increasingly service land-based transport as well. The hydrogen would be produced sustainably by the electrolysis of seawater using wave, tide and wind power.

“Ultimately we need zero emissions fuel, sustainable fuel,” says Professor Andrews who has also led the development of Australia’s first hydrogen-fuelled, scale-model truck.

The vision for offshore hydrogen production is shared by classification society Germanischer Lloyd (GL). Current technology and operational efficiency improvements could reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 20 percent, but fuel innovation is needed to meet the tough long-term targets being set around the world.

GL has developed a design for a hydrogen-bunkering station that uses wind energy to produce liquid hydrogen. A lack of mature storage technologies for offshore wind farms means that as much as 30 percent of their potential energy output is lost and this could be used to produce the hydrogen. This solution could be commercially attractive as early as 2020, according to GL.

Oxygen and hydrogen are used by all marine fuel cells developed to date to generate electrical current via an electrolyte, with heat and water as the only by-products. Hydrogen can potentially be stored as a compressed gas, a liquid or, when the technology is mature enough, in solid state, but it need not be used directly as a fuel in all cases. The currently available technologies differ in electrolyte composition and other hydrogen sources include LNG, methanol and biogas.

As part of their vision for a hydrogen-fuelled future, GL has designed a container feeder vessel that would use fuel cells to produce the power required for propulsion. The 1,000TEU vessel would rely on a 5MW fuel cell system made up of ten linked 0.5MW modules. The 920 cubic metres of liquid hydrogen fuel stored in multiple, pressurised C-type tanks would be enough to power the vessel over a typical ten-day round-trip.

Marine fuel cell development remains in its infancy and early installations such as those onboard the offshore vessel ‘Viking Lady’ and the car carrier ‘Undine’ are currently used to generate auxiliary power. The situation is changing for passenger vessels first. The 600-passenger ferry ‘Hornblower Hybrid’ debuted in New York in October running on renewable power generated by a 32kW fuel cell, solar panels and wind turbines, with the option of diesel engine and battery power if required.

Meanwhile in the UK, Bristol City Council has funded the development of the UK’s first hydrogen ferry, which is scheduled to commence operation this year. The 12-passenger ferry, built by Bristol Hydrogen Boats, is designed to demonstrate the commercial advantages of fuel cell technology to business, residents, commuters and tourists.

According to Bristol councillor Neil Harrison, “The council is now starting to look at ways of producing hydrogen locally from renewable energy, which would mean a cut in carbon emissions too. Hydrogen cars will be commercially available in the UK from 2014 and we are aiming to ensure that they will be able to refuel here, alongside the ferry. The hydrogen economy will be a major employer by 2020 and I want to make sure that Bristol is at the chalk face.”

As a propulsion solution for large vessels, the technology is still heavy and cumbersome and Japanese shipping line NYK foresees that it will not be until around 2030 that fuel cells will be advanced enough to be used as the main propulsion system in large cargo ships. NYK is targeting the achievement of a zero emissions cargo ship and has designed the concept ship ‘NYK Super Eco Ship 2030’. This container ship design is being developed in partnership with MTI (their subsidiary technology institute), Elomatic (a marine consulting company in Finland), and Garroni Progetti (a ship designer in Italy).

In the future, zero emissions will become a standard requirement for the shipping industry, says NYK, and the company predicts that by that time hydrogen will be the main power source. As well as fuel cells, the company predicts the development of an engine run on hydrogen.

Wendy Laursen

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