Do fuel cells offer carbon free shipping?

Fuel cells are not new, but can the technology be scaled up to meet the demands of oceangoing shipping – and at a palatable cost for shipowners?

A long time coming

Like most of the alternatives to liquid hydrocarbon fuels being touted for ships, fuel cells are not new technology. The fuel cell itself has been around for nearly 200 years; we will not dive deep into the chemistry of fuel cells here except to remind ourselves that they are like an infinite battery so long as the fuel to run the battery does not run out. Most relevant fuel cell research covers proton exchange membrane fuel cells – often called PEMs.

In shipping, fuel cells theoretically offer some of the advantages of a fuel oil combustion engine ship including long range, relatively easy bunkering and all-year, all-weather functionality. All this without the GHG, SOx and NOx emissions that make fuel oil and diesel unpopular now. At the same time fuel cells can offer some of the advantages of batteries like instant torque, zero emissions and quiet operation, without the range, load and charging issues of batteries, as well as overcoming the big issue with batteries – the loss of cargo space.

Fuel cell applications now routinely adhere to the IGF code on low flashpoint gas fuels, and can be covered by classification societies, which have between them published extensive research on fuel cell applications. 

Most fuel cells rely on hydrogen as a fuel.  There is some research into other types, such as salt carbonate as a fuel for the cell but, in this article, we will focus on hydrogen.  Historically the hydrogen for the fuel cell, like nearly all hydrogen production, has come from reformation of natural gas. But the hydrogen has to be produced by renewable means if the fuel cell is truly to be zero carbon.  To offer true range, a fuel cell ship would have to be designed with hydrogen tanks, obliging the introduction of a global hydrogen bunkering infrastructure, or onboard hydrogen generators. They would also probably require back up systems such as batteries in case of failure or loss of fuel.

Combined heat and power fuel cells make use of the waste heat generated by the fuel cell. Waste heat regeneration is already a feature of many ship engines and its use can increase the efficiency of a fuel cell significantly – as much as doubling it in some situations. 

Storing hydrogen onboard

Three main systems are currently available.  Compressed hydrogen can be stored onboard. Around 1,000 kg of hydrogen can be stored in a pressurised 40 ft container.  Liquefied hydrogen can be stored onboard in larger onboard tanks.  Onboard hydrogen production is also possible by reforming other energy carriers like LNG or methanol, though these still produce CO2 unless a biofuel or synthetic fuel is used.

The big challenge remains scaling up fuel cells for larger ocean-going cargo ships. This is an engineering challenge but perhaps not an insuperable one. ABB believes that large ships like bulk carriers and container ships will most likely employ fuel cells with onboard reformers using bio-methanol or bio-LNG as the main onboard fuel.

A corollary issue is that of fuel cell degradation. Fuel cells can degrade over time as the materials in them can corrode or deplete.  China Classification Society engineer Aohan Chin told the Gastech virtual summit in 2020 that operational life is between five and ten thousand hours – between 208 and 416 days – far too short for an oceangoing ship. However, the EU funded HySeas project suggests that at least 30,000 operating hours is possible.

Recent developments and expectations

In the last decade, Germany led the way in researching fuel cells for shipping when the e4ships lighthouse project set itself the task of using fuel cells to supply energy in shipping. Between 2009 and 2016, the German transport ministry invested over €20 million in a €35 million programme testing maritime applications for fuel cells. In addition to a theoretical exercise labelled TOPLATERNE, two demonstration projects were undertaken. Meyer Werft’s Pa-X-ell modular fuel cell began trial operations in May 2014. Thyssen Krupp’s SchIBX solid oxide fuel cell developing 100 Kw was fuelled with diesel and was tested in 2015 and 2016.

The study concluded that ‘the technology is becoming a genuine alternative for the specific needs of shipping… particularly when ships are in harbour and coastal waters. Smaller vessels could even be powered by fuel cell technology in future.’ 

The Zero Emission Ship Technology Association (ZESTA) expects fuel cells to be providing auxiliary power on large commercial vessels by 2023 and that around 100 small fuel cell ships could be operating in Europe by 2027. ZESTA expects there to be a consensus on the preferred fuel options for larger ships by 2030, which could delimit the maritime market for fuel cells. They expect fuel cell ship ownership costs to be comparable with diesel ship ownership costs by 2030.

Grahaeme Henderson, head of shipping for Shell, told the UK’s Chamber of Shipping online forum in February 2021 that ‘we see hydrogen as the fuel of the future….look at aircraft, if you look at rail, look at rail, even heavy industry, they’re moving to hydrogen. It will be an available fuel and available around the world. Therefore shipping does not have to pay all those infrastructure costs.

Others are less sanguine.  Soren Skou, CEO of AP Moller-Maersk wrote in the company’s 2020 sustainability report that the company has evaluated a broad range of zero emission technologies and that ‘fuel cells were put on hold because they are not ready to be produced efficiently at scale and cost is still high, but we monitor this technology closely.’

Fuel cell manufacturers tend to focus away from deep ocean large cargo ships. Nedstack Fuel Cell Technology B.V. of Arnhem envisages a market for its technology in power at port for any kind of ship, but also propulsion for ferries, limited-range cruise ships, yachts, dredgers, powered barges, fishing vessels and inland navigation.

AFC Energy, a UK company which has developed NASA-style alkaline fuel cells, believes that its latest product, which can fit into a shipping container, could be used in maritime situations. It has signed an engineering collaboration with Ricardo to develop hydrogen fuel cells for marine, rail and stationary power generation. 

Energy storage incumbent Corvus, owned by Horsk Hydro, Equinor, Shell and BW Group, and its partner Toyota Motor of Japan have combined to build a fuel fell factory in Norway aimed at ships, taking advantage of $6.2 million of government funding plus support from local owners such as Equinor, Norled and Wilhelmsen. It aims for marketable products in 2024. The plan is to scale up Toyota car fuel cell technology and combine it with batteries for marine applications.

Fuel cell designs for shipping

Norway leads the world in marine fuel cell applications, in part assisted by government funding for hydrogen innovation.

Norwegian shipbuilder Ulstein has designed the J102 zero emission wind turbine installation vessel, which can operate in zero emission mode for 75%nof the time. This jack-up ship features a battery hybrid system in addition to diesel electric generator which can be replaced with a hydrogen powered fuel cell system. The types of vessel that use diesel-electric ships such as yachts and cruise vessels, offshore vessels, ferries and short-sea cargo ships, are often cited as the likeliest early adopters of fuel cells or fuel cell / battery hybrid systems.

The Ulstein J102 jack-up wind turbine installation vessel with kite-shaped hull. Source: Ulstein Group ASA

ABB, the Zurich-headquartered electrical engineering group which developed the Azipod, has partnered with Ballard Power Systems to develop marine market fuel cells with 1MW and 3MW (or multiples thereof) applications for ice-going vessels, passenger vessels and short-sea cargo vessels. Jostein Bogen, Global Product Manager for Energy Storage and Fuel Cells at ABB Marine & Ports, says, ‘A lot of the [fuel cell] technologies we apply in short-sea shipping are also now being applied in deep-sea shipping. The most efficient way to use hydrogen is in a fuel cell.’ 

In the ABB pathway to carbon-free shipping, the widespread use of fuel cell modules depends on carbon-free hydrogen production. Bogen says that the lifecycle costs of a PEM fuel cell are now approaching those of a diesel engine. As the cost of hydrogen and of fuel cells will presumably fall with scale over time, then fuel cells could be competitive on a cost basis by 2030.

Some are betting on an earlier date. Norway’s innovation incubator fund has also supported the construction of a hydrogen fuel cell factory by TECO 2030 and its Austrian partner AVL. The owners target up to 1.2 gigawatts of production annually, with operations set to begin in 2022.

Some current installations

In March 2020, the shipyard All American Marine was awarded a contract to complete the construction and outfitting of an aluminium 70 foot long, 84-passenger, zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered, electric drive e-ferry. This will be the first fuel-cell civil vessel in the US. The 360 kW fuel cell for the ship has been built by Cummins and will power the vessel up to 22 knots.

HySeas III, a ferry that will sail the 25-minute voyage between Kirkwall and Shapinsay in the Orkney Islands, deploys fuel cells with 10 years of track record in cars, fuelled by hydrogen produced locally by renewable wind and wave power. The project was set up under the EU Horizon 2020 research scheme before the UK left the EU and was a factor in local elections in 2020.

A 100 kW fuel cell from ABB is being installed on a river-going vessel due to deliver this year to Compagnie Fluviale de Transport (CFT).  Matthieu Blanc, COO at CFT, says, ‘CFT has been an inland waterways innovator for more than half a century. Powering river transport in a sustainable way is a new type of challenge, but it has become vital that we cut emissions on Europe’s inland waterways and specifically in the city centres. With this project, we aim to highlight that emission-free operation is both feasible and commercially viable.’

In China, battery powered small cargo ships (below 10,000 DWT) are being developed to tranship (ironically) coal from major ports to power stations, in order to meet stricter inland air quality regulations. A 2,100 DWT fuel cell version has been approved by China Classification Society and will operate on the Pearl River in South China from later this year. Four 130 kW fuel cells will be fitted, along with 280 kg of hydrogen stored in 36 gas cylinders.  Auxiliary power will be provided by 1.26 kW of lithium batteries. The vessel has a design range of 140 km at 13 km per hour.

Danish renewables company Orsted has chartered an offshore support vessel from Northern Offshore Services to work on the Hornsea Two offshore wind project. The ship will be battery powered but is built to retrofit fuel cells as hydrogen storage becomes viable. Orsted has also chartered two similar units from Danish owner MHO-CO Ltd being built in China.

Perhaps the largest fuel cell ship project is the Europa Seaways ferry. This Danish-Norwegian project aims to launch a 23 megawatt fuel cell, 380 car, 1,800 passenger capacity ferry on an Oslo-Copenhagen service by 2027. The hydrogen will be produced by wind power in produced by Orsted in Denmark. Ballard has joined the project as the fuel cell maker. DFDS will operate the ferry.  Jakob Steffensen, Director & Environmental Lead at DFDS, says, ‘Fuel cell technology is new for shipping, but we know we can scale it up to the required level…It has just never been done on the scale that we are aiming for on this project.’

Mark Williams

Mark Williams

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