Hydrogen technology for the decarbonization of the maritime industry

© Mr.siwabud Veerapaisarn

Vidal Bharath, Chief Commercial Officer of Bramble Energy, explains why hydrogen technology is key to decarbonizing the maritime industry

Has the “new green era” of navigation finally arrived? While we – globally, collectively – may have been slow to recognize the impact of shipping on carbon emissions, good progress towards decarbonizing the shipping industry is finally being made in this space.

In 2021, major retailers pledged to only ship goods via zero-carbon fueled vessels by 2040. Maersk is set to deliver the world’s first carbon liner – fueled by methanol – in 2023. In the UK , the launch of the Shipping Office for Reducing Emissions (UK SHORE) in March 2022 was closely followed by the announcement of a second round of the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition, with £12m funding made available to accelerate the development of net zero technologies for the maritime industry. It also seems fitting that the maritime sector is also going back to its roots by exploring how to better exploit wind energy.

But reducing emissions from such a complex industry is no simple task. To achieve the current goals set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – and beyond – a multifaceted approach is required. Renewable energies such as wind and solar will of course be essential, but also the development of new technologies and the exploitation of hydrogen.

The importance of “super fuel” hydrogen for the maritime sector

Hydrogen, which can be produced via renewable energy sources and emits only water vapour, has a fundamental role to play in the decarbonisation of the global maritime industry: a vital “super fuel”, according to the British government’s hydrogen strategy.

Ship power is one element, but there is a much wider range of elements that hydrogen is compatible with. For example, ports are the hub where land and sea meet, which means that many industries intersect. Replacing all port activities with renewable energy would have a massive impact on carbon emissions in the maritime sector. Logistics in ports to remove cargo, etc. could be powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology and would take advantage of the “zero downtime factor”.

Hydrogen can be stored and transported in tanks – much like traditional fossil fuels – and existing ships can be more simply fitted with hydrogen technologies, such as fuel cells. While electric batteries work well in ships with shorter sea routes, hydrogen fuel cells require less frequent refueling and are therefore well placed to power larger vessels on longer international routes.

However, for a truly clean end-to-end solution, other alternatives such as wind power have a role to play in producing green hydrogen by electrolysis for infrastructure that could operate on the port side – a potential source clean, contained power for operations and shipping in the future.

Investing in hydrogen – alongside other green technologies – would also help create a more stable and versatile energy market through increased economic efficiency of renewable energy investments and system optimization. electricity and the security of electricity supplies.

The challenges holding back hydrogen

The benefits across the broad spectrum of the maritime industry are very clear, but progress has been slow. The biggest challenges to implementing hydrogen in the maritime sector are the lack of infrastructure, investment, education and government policy – ​​which together prevent the technology from reaching its full potential. . The cost of hydrogen compared to other fuels is therefore higher.

Much like the implementation of hydrogen technologies in other industries such as automotive and mobility, maritime hydrogen presents us with a chicken and egg situation. Should we develop the ship’s technology first, or the fuel?

A report by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in July 2022 identified a number of gaps in the UK supply chain that need to be filled in order to meet future demand – including , for example, a shortage of suppliers who can support large-scale compression of hydrogen for storage, as well as hydrogen-qualified pipe manufacturers.

Storing and transporting hydrogen on ships in its compressed or liquid form also has significant health and safety implications. It also requires more storage space (in incredibly cold temperatures) on ships as well, which means that a small percentage of space can be lost to additional cargo.

Increased investment to enable scaling at pace would allow hydrogen to compete with and replace traditional fossil fuels, both from a cost and practical perspective.

service station at a seaport
© Sergiy1975

How to make the decarbonization of the maritime industry scalable?

As with other industries, decarbonizing the maritime industry is going to require the use of all viable clean solutions to expand decarbonization. The industry has taken steps to reduce emissions, but it needs more support from government and policy makers to become scalable. It is essential that the new solutions developed have the regulations and security required for their use.

Maritime transport remains one of the most energy-efficient means of transporting goods. Freight transport, for example, uses five times more energy, but its almost exclusive dependence on fossil fuels makes it too energy-intensive. There should also be a collaborative approach with the maritime sector working with industries such as the energy, heavy transport and building heating sectors to develop supply chain networks, safety guidelines and regulations enabling scaling up and reducing the cost of hydrogen-based fuels.

Legislation and regulatory frameworks are fundamental to unlocking the potential of hydrogen for maritime use. The UK Government’s 2021 Hydrogen Strategy is a start – but to date there is little specific hydrogen legislation, and no specific regulator either. Cross-fertilization of knowledge and expertise between industries and government agencies is also necessary – with 80% of hiring managers citing skills shortages as a significant issue for the renewable energy sector.

Incentive will also be key to helping early adopters of hydrogen down the line – and the more adopters there are, the lower the cost of hydrogen will be.

It’s time to act

The need to decarbonize the shipping industry is urgent: experts predict that global carbon emissions from shipping will actually increase by 3% to 10% if the industry continues to rely on fossil fuels.

There is no single answer to the question of maritime decarbonization – only that a technology-enhanced approach and multiple energy sources is essential if the global industry is to come within a nautical mile of meeting targets. emissions set by the IMO. Working with a decarbonization strategy that does not include hydrogen technology would amount to slowing down, or even halting, progress that is already well under way.

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