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Clean power: hydrogen

The zero-emission fuel right below the waves

Hydrogen is everywhere. Not just here on Earth, but it is the most common element in the known universe. It has a high energy density. It releases zero emissions, which is very important back here on Earth. As the maritime industry works to reduce sulfur emissions, could hydrogen be the answer?

For an element that is literally everywhere, hydrogen does have technical, safety, and regulatory challenges. For example, production and storage is costly. At two to three times the cost of diesel electric, many agree that hydrogen fuel cells will rely on government subsidies or heavy taxes on fossil fuels to compete. Hydrogen storage, in liquid form, requires -253 degree Celsius containers as used aboard space shuttles. In compressed form, it needs large pressurized containers. While hydrogen does come with challenges, now the industry is asking: why not just use the water as fuel?

The possibility of zero emissions

In 2020, new IMO guidelines go into effect that limit sulfur emissions. The guidelines require a new limit of 0.50% m/m. This effort shows the industry is on course for decarbonization. The question is, with sulfur scrubbers as a stop-gap measure, where is the maritime industry going? For right now, other alternative fuel options simply don’t show the promise that hydrogen does as a zero-emissions fuel. But there still needs to be a change in the way it is produced for it to be considered environmentally friendly.

Hydrogen can only live up to its promise if it is not produced by fossil fuels. A similar argument is being made in the auto industry where electric car buyers are questioning where their power is coming from. And right now over 90 percent of all commercially used hydrogen is derived through burning a fossil fuel. Despite these difficulties, current technology shows that out of all industries, the shipping industry could be where the hydrogen energy revolution begins.

Hydrogen now

The Energy Observer is a 30-meter long experimental vessel that began life as a racing catamaran in 1983. Over the last few years, it has been retrofitted with green tech and is now a solar, wind, and primarily hydrogen-powered ship sailing around the world. The hydrogen it uses is extracted directly from the seawater it sails on. In North America and Europe, hydrogen-powered ferries are ready to become part of our daily lives.

In California, an area of the US that has been a forerunner in lowering emissions, a commercial hydrogen-powered ferry will soon begin transporting residents across San Francisco Bay. On the other side of the globe, the Norwegian government has helped fund the construction of a zero-emission ferry that will carry up to 299 passengers and 80 cars. The Norwegians required that at least half of the ferry’s energy will come from hydrogen, and engineers are making it possible with today’s technology. In Antwerp, the water shuttle Hydroville has already taken to the seas and is used to transport commuters and host events all while cruising on a hydrogen-fueled diesel engine. Compagnie Maritime Belge received a sustainability award for developing this clean technology people can use daily.

With predetermined routes making fueling easier, these ferries could be just the first of many more to come. Even hydrogen fuel cells currently used to provide auxiliary power in ships are stackable and scalable making a solely fuel cell-powered cruise or cargo ship a possibility. Two hydrogen powered short-sea route container ships are in development by Samskip and the Norwegian government. The goal is to transport goods to ports in Northern Europe with the use of hydrogen fuel cells.

Stay on course

On the current course, the shipping industry could halve its emissions by 2050. Even if that sounds far-fetched, there will most likely be hybrid systems that use a combination of fuel cells as on-board power supplies and the abundance of seawater to augment other energy needs. Ports would become energy hubs where boats would not just offload cargo but also energy. The maritime industry could be floating on an abundant zero-emission solution: hydrogen.

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