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Hydrogen on the high seas

NEW H SHIP, a recently completed EU funded project, has found that no major barriers stand in the way of using hydrogen aboard shipping vessels. The project team hopes that their findings will convince the shipping industry and politicians to invest more in the research and de...
Hydrogen on the high seas
NEW H SHIP, a recently completed EU funded project, has found that no major barriers stand in the way of using hydrogen aboard shipping vessels. The project team hopes that their findings will convince the shipping industry and politicians to invest more in the research and development (R&D) of this clean energy source for use on the high seas.

Ships are fast becoming the biggest source of air pollution in the EU. It is estimated that by 2020 emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from ships will exceed land-based emissions in Europe.

'To change Europe into a hydrogen society, we have to include ships in the scenario,' said Hjalti Pall Ingolfsson of Icelandic New Energy, one of the NEW H SHIP project partners.

Despite recognising the need to lower these emissions, limited R&D has been carried out to see how new, cleaner energy sources might be adapted for use on shipping. 'There have been several projects looking at hydrogen aboard vessels but these have focused on a lake or harbour environment, not the open sea,' explained Mr Ingolfsson.

The NEW H SHIP project, which ended in 2005, conducted a paper study to identify technical, operational and societal obstacles related to the shipboard system-requirements and infrastructure for maritime fuels.

It based much of its research on the outcomes of two other EU funded projects: FC-SHIP assessed the potential of fuel cell technology on ships, while EURO-HYPORT examined the feasibility of exporting hydrogen from Iceland to the European continent.

Project partners also made their assessments based on the technical issues encountered in the hydrogen fuel cell-powered bus demonstration projects like CUTE and ECTOS, both EU-funded initiatives.

'Valuable learning has been generated by those projects which helped us to assess whether hydrogen fuel cells were a suitable technology for the sea,' explained Mr Ingolfsson.

However, land and sea are very different environments which present different obstacles. 'There some very big differences,' noted Mr Ingolfsson. One is the need to store large amounts of hydrogen aboard ships. 'Ships go to sea, and as you know, there are not that many filling stations in the open sea, so the vessels have to be filled up with hydrogen before they leave.

'Then there are different sized vessels with some of them going out just for one day, while others might go out for a week or even a month. So we need to be able to store the hydrogen aboard.' Because hydrogen occupies more space than any other fuel, whether it be in gaseous or liquid state, Mr Ingolfsson noted that the gas would have to be compressed. The design of a fuel cell for ships would also have to take into account the saltiness of the sea air.

According to the project's calculations, 'a ship of a 100 tonnes that goes out to sea for no more than a week could probably run on hydrogen directly, but for larger ships that stay longer at sea, they need more energy to propel and power the equipment aboard. So the storage problem needs to be solved.'

One alternative for larger ships is to focus on storing the hydrogen needed to replace the electricity used to power the ship's equipment, steering and pump components and the heating and lighting. 'Economically, it is cheaper to look at the auxiliary power unit (APU) first, since it uses 10-15KW compared to the 100KW needed to propel the ship.'

Although no calculations have been made as yet as to whether the replacement of fossil fuels by hydrogen would reduce emission levels, the partners in the project are confident that hydrogen is less of a pollutant. 'Having a centralised place that produces hydrogen would allow us to handle the emissions more efficiently than is possible with fossil fuels,' said Mr Ingolfsson, adding that advanced carbon sequestration would help deliver this.

Another difference between using hydrogen on dry land and at sea are the varying safety issues. Hydrogen is a highly flammable gas and explosions can occur if hydrogen leaks and collects. Mr Ingolfsson referred to work undertaken by project partners to calculate the impact of a collision and the danger posed to crew members in the event of a leak or explosion.

Fire and explosion are much more critical on board of ships compared to dry land, since the distances between machinery equipment and the 'public' are much smaller. The separation of a fuel cell system from the safe areas e.g. from passenger areas on a ferry is much more complex. 'Unlike dry land, there is nowhere to run away when you are floating on the Atlantic Ocean,' said Mr Ingolfsson, who noted that further research was needed to design proper safety guidelines.

The price of producing hydrogen is also a cause for concern. 'Hydrogen is much more expensive to produce than fossil fuels, because of the small quantities we are currently using in buses,' noted Mr Ingolfsson. 'Nearly all fuel cells are created by hand and not enough is being produced to put up a production line.'

But with prices of oil and gas rising, Mr Ingolfsson is hopeful that it will persuade governments and the shipping industry to think more seriously about using hydrogen on ships.

The practical design of fuel cells for ships, however, is still missing and there have been almost no hydrogen-fuel vessel demonstrations. According to Mr Ingolfsson this is due to the way the shipping industry works, which is very different from car manufacturing. 'Unlike cars which have a specific brand and are built from top to bottom by the same manufacturer, ships are custom built,' he explained.

Those that supply the parts are reluctant to invest in hydrogen technology, since they do not have to ability to show off their technology. 'So we cannot depend on funding from industry partners as with car manufacturers, therefore we need stronger political support to jumpstart both market and investment,' he said.

Political and stakeholder support is also needed to ensure that all regulations, codes and standards linked to the use of hydrogen in transport also refer to the marine applications of the gas.

Mr Ingolfsson pointed to the support that was given by both industry, national governments and the EU to the bus demonstration projects CUTE and ECTOS and suggested that a similar structure could be imagined for sea transport.

Although the project is now complete, Mr Ingolfsson says that the partners are very keen to continue the work, and are currently discussing the possibility of starting a project to test a prototype of a ship's APU powered by hydrogen.

Source: CORDIS News interview with NEW H SHIP project partner Hjalti Pall Ingolfsson

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