Hydrogen fuel cells – part of the solution to reduce maritime industry emissions?

 Photo: Water-Go-Round
Photo: Water-Go-Round

In the maritime industry, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) decision to limit bunker fuel sulfur emissions to 0.5 percent by 2020 is a move that would affect the bottom line of every shipping company in the business. Not only is this regulation going to affect global fuel extraction and refining, but it would also exact a toll on the container vessels that would either have to change engines or put in sulfur scrubbers at its exhaust to comply with the new directives.

With some obvious demand for low-sulfur fuel in the offing, there has also been a better reception of alternative forms of energy that could propel the vessels of the future. One such fuel is hydrogen – a promising fuel source that has been around for quite some time, but never found solid ground to stand on as the technology and price projections were unconvincing to the incumbent carriers.  

Of late, hydrogen fuel cells have found a level of adoption in truck fleets and within confined spaces like ports, airports and warehouses where hydrogen-powered forklifts help reduce emissions. The long-term cost of hydrogen-powered equipment operations is in line with diesel-powered equipment, making it an attractive alternative. Hydrogen produced on a large scale by electrolysis from renewables are today on parity with diesel for the auto industry, buses and trucks.

However, in the maritime industry, bunker fuel is far cheaper and more practical compared to hydrogen fuel cells, making it harder to advocate the latter to the industry at-large. Bunker fuel is easy to procure and store, easy to pump under atmospheric conditions because it is a liquid, and is also less expensive. However, with the impending IMO regulations and the increasing onset of local environmental regulations, the hydrogen fuel industry may be poised for greater penetration.

As with most of the renewable or alternative energy sources, the ground zero of pilot tests are in Europe. Norway has been a frontrunner, with government policies and industry involvement helping propel the introduction of zero-emissions vessels that run on hydrogen fuel cells.

“The Norwegian government is acting as a stimulus to zero-emission solutions. For example, new ferry licenses are issued by the government only if the ferries run with zero emissions. This has opened up the market for battery-operated ferries on shorter routes,” said Tomas Tronstad, the managing director of HYON, a startup working on hydrogen integration together with its owners Nel, Hexagon and PowerCell Sweden.

“The push by the government for environmentally sound solutions and funding mechanisms is  helpful. There is also good collaboration between the different funding agencies, which assists projects from the initial engineering and design, through to building and testing, and finally to the actual use case,” he continued.

Tronstad explained that the reception for hydrogen fuel will likely increase only if a price parity with bunker fuel exists. To get the economies of scale, it is critical to ensure that the sales of fuel cells snowball, aided by drivers who financially support the system. But for now, widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cells depends on government support and regulations, which if done correctly make hydrogen a viable solution.

“Diesel and marine gas is actually a rather perfect fuel, except for the fact that it generates  pollution. Every other option is a trade-off from a practical point of view – whether it is liquid natural gas, methanol, biogas or hydrogen. For now, we need to get the low-hanging fruit – like the vessels that have fixed routes and travel short to medium distances. In such scenarios, it is easy to set up the infrastructure by providing hydrogen at one place rather than in many locations,” said Tronstad.

Aboard the vessel, the fuel cell systems of HYON/PowerCell design are smaller and lighter than comparable diesel gen-sets, and are very modular in design, making them easy to fit into vessels’ existing designs.

In essence, the idea is to ease into the prospect of alternative, cleaner fuel by also making sure the price of that fuel is not too high to adopt. Tronstad is cautiously optimistic, noting that companies and governments need to invest in the technology for it to become significant.

Tronstad’s company HYON is a recipient of two major projects aided by Norway’s Pilot-E environmental funding program along with several other companies. The first project seeks to develop the country’s first all hydrogen-powered high-speed route by 2020. The second is for container ships on short-sea routes between Scandinavia and western Europe to run partly on hydrogen fuel.