Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old Swedish climate activist, told British politicians in April that their claims of massive greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions were “pie in the sky.” Their figures did not include the emissions from shipping, aviation and imported goods.
When the logistics figures were introduced the statistics did not look good, as Thunberg pointed out. A 37 percent reduction in territorial carbon emissions since 1990 sounds good, but when you add emissions from transport and imports the figure drops to just 10 percent, or as Thunberg disdainfully noted, “just 0.4 percent a year,” and that was mainly due to an European Union directive that forced the closure of coal-fired power plants.
IMO 2050 mandate on greenhouse gases
Belatedly, shipping has started to move on its GHG reduction plans because of last year’s decision by the International Maritime Organization to set a global target of a 50 percent cut in vessel emissions by 2050, compared to 2008 levels.
Achieving such a transformation is extremely challenging, but the industry has accepted that it must move away from hydrocarbons as fuel if it is to achieve the target.
Various ship designs with power systems that offer zero emissions are under consideration, including battery-powered vessels, sail designs and carbon neutral-powered ships that use fuels such as methanol.
One company has gone a step further and is looking at developing the zero-fuel ship. That is a vessel that creates its own fuel as it moves.
The advent of the zero-fuel ship?
Madadh (pronounced Maddy) MacLaine, CEO of Zero Emissions Maritime Technology, Ltd. believes that hydrogen’s time has come. MacLaine is also a founding member of the Zero Emissions Ship Technology Association, which was established in 2018 to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. “The most exciting development to my mind is, of course, the zero emissions zero fuel ships, or ships that produce their own fuel while underway. At Zero Emissions Maritime Technology we are working with several clients on designs for zero fuel ships. The concept is really fairly simple. The primary mode of propulsion is using wind as a direct renewable and then capturing any excess energy.”
Proton exchange membrane hydrogen electrolyzers
That excess energy is first stored in batteries and then as hydrogen, using proton exchange membrane electrolysis, which separates hydrogen atoms from oxygen in water molecules. When this hydrogen is burned it produces water as exhaust, so it is green hydrogen in production and consumption. Some of the power will be used by an onboard desalination plant.
Proton exchange membrane technology is not new according to MacLaine; small-scale usage has been around for many years. “We’re just scaling it up to a megawatt size so that we can begin to have a significant impact on emissions reductions in commercial shipping.”
ITM Power produces proton exchange membrane hydrogen electrolyzers and is currently attempting to enter the shipping market through inland shipping and coastal vessels, which it believes offer the best opportunity to prove the technology.
Like MacLaine, ITM Power chief executive officer Graham Cooley believes that with certain vessel types, the ship can produce its own fuel. Unlike MacLaine he sees the proton exchange membrane electrolyzer based at a port, delivering the fuel when it is needed.
“With electrolyzers installed at the location of demand, such as a port, hydrogen can be generated when refueling is needed, with no road or other transportation of the hydrogen required. Local storage technology, such as steel, glass fiber or carbon fiber tanks will depend on a number of factors, including pressure, refueling and contingency requirements,” Cooley said.
A research project to test the system is under development now in Scotland with a number of partners, including: project leader, the Isle of Lewis’ Point and Sandwick Trust; ITM Power; Caledonian Maritime Assets, owners of Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries; the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Glasgow; Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy; and ENGIE.
The feasibility study is ‘wind to wake,’ examining all aspects from wind power, transport and storage to ship design, said Cooley.
Supplying hydrogen fuel – BIG HIT
Hydrogen fuel will be generated through ‘Building Innovative Green Hydrogen Systems in an Isolated Territory’ (BIG HIT), a project based in the Orkney Islands, which provides power to the islands with the surplus added to the grid.
With more than 50 megawatts of installed wind, wave and tidal capacity generating more than 46 GWh per year of renewable power, the Orkneys have been a net exporter of electricity since 2013. Energy used to produce the hydrogen for BIG HIT is provided by the community-owned turbines on the islands of Shapinsay and Eday, two of the islands in the Orkney archipelago.
Approximately 30 percent of the energy produced by these turbines is wasted as the grid has a limited ability to absorb the excess power. By using this excess capacity to produce green hydrogen, the energy can be stored on land and used by the ships when necessary.
The technology for zero emissions ships is already available and it could start making a difference immediately, according to MacLaine.
“This is the thing that really gets me. In terms of design, zero emissions ships have been possible for decades. The only thing that is preventing us from making the switch is cost. But that cost can be dealt with through regulation. It’s a very simple formula. If we put a price on carbon emissions, the cost of zero emissions technologies and the requisite designs begin to become competitive,” explained MacLaine.
Cost comparisons and potential price declines
Cost estimates for hydrogen produced through electrolysis range between $3.50 and $8.30 per kilogram ($1,170 to $2,770/tonne of crude oil equivalent), averaging about $5.30 per kilogram ($1,770/tonne crude oil equivalent). This cost estimate includes production, compression, storage and transport, according to an industry study. As a reference, the price of oil at $70 per barrel is approximately $510 per tonne of fuel oil equivalent.
“According to forecasts, the price of electrolysers will fall in the near future, reducing the capital expenditure and consequently the production cost of hydrogen. The location of production facilities may also play a role in the cost of hydrogen. For example, electrolysis in areas of Norway with low electricity prices have the potential to drive the production costs down to between $3.50 and $4.10 per kilogram by 2020,” said the report by maritime assurance company DNV GL.
If consumer preference and other market drivers such as cargo owners that are under pressure from stakeholders to reduce their carbon footprint, as well as financial institutions that could then refuse to lend for a potential stranded ship are taken into account, “we will begin to experience a tangible sea change,” added MacLaine.
Further price reductions will come as the technology achieves economies of scale necessary to put clean solutions within reach of the wider market.
“The whole possibility of emerging economies producing their own fuels from renewable energy really then changes the balance to make zero emissions the most profitable option. That will be the tipping point when everything slides to zero emissions in one go,” said MacLaine.
There is an abundance of hydrogen on Earth, but the element is not found in its pure form. It is always combined with some other chemical, such as oxygen (in the form of water).
Transitioning to hydrogen – the future is now
According to a report by Tristan Smith, head of University College London’s Energy Institute, the shipping sector would need to produce approximately 80 million tonnes of fuel annually if it were to meet its climate obligations through hydrogen alone. Current global hydrogen production stands at 60 million tonnes.
Cooley told FreightWaves, “If we’re going to get to 80 million tonnes of hydrogen per annum by 2050, we need to start building the infrastructure now.”
ITM is looking at producing hydrogen to power existing vessels rather than designing new ships. Cooley believes that there are significant hurdles for hydrogen power to overcome, including the storage of hydrogen for larger vessels which can use significantly more space than current oil-based options.
Stored liquefied hydrogen must be maintained at about -250°C and at between 350 and 700 bar. But DNV GL believes that storage issues could be solved following the development of Kawasaki’s liquefied hydrogen tank for the maritime sector, which is based on tanks developed by Kawasaki for the storage of rocket fuel.
“Once liquefied hydrogen storage technology for tankers is available, it will be possible to store up to 88,500 kg of hydrogen per tank. A demonstration tank system will be commissioned in 2020,” the classification society said.
“It’s no secret that regulations will be required to create a level playing field for any technology competing with oil. Another barrier to green hydrogen, is the tax on electricity. Marine fuels are not taxed. Taxing the energy source puts green hydrogen at an unfair disadvantage; so by creating regulations and eliminating the tax on electricity destined for marine fuel, you’d go a long way toward making green hydrogen economically viable,” claimed Cooley.