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Industrialization and the marine fuel cell

Special Focus: Fuel Cell Applications

S. KANERVA, ABB Marine & Ports, Helsinki, Finland

With regulators aiming to achieve net-zero emissions for the shipping sector by 2050, the industry—which delivers more than 80% of global trade—is a key target for fuel cell technology. However, while transforming hydrogen (H2) into electricity offers a decarbonization path that attracts investments from bunkering ship owners globally, alternatives to marine fuel cells have proved (so far) more persuasive for shipping’s owner class.

The aim of the maritime industry is to replace heavy fuel oils—which ships have conventionally burned with liquified natural gas—with methanol or ammonia. Today, mainstream shipping continues to see the combustion engine as the primary option toward the lower carbon future. The author’s company collaborates with ship owners and yards to deliver power, automation and propulsion technologies to passenger, cargo, offshore and specialized vessel types globally.

In 2017, control, converter and transformer technologies for producing electric power from H2 were used with a 100-kW proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) as a technology demonstrator. Since then, remarkable progress has been made for modular power supply systems, which have disrupted more than a century of conventional thinking regarding ship power and propulsion. Today, technological advancements have enabled the manufacture of type approved commercially available 3.2-megawatt (MW) fuel cell-powered short-sea container ships (FIG. 1).

FIG. 1. A modular power supply system for on-deck or onshore installation.

Delivering decarbonization. In Rotterdam, two 135-m ships will be deployed to connect the city with Oslo Fjord, Norway. The author’s company will deliver the fuel cell integration package, power distribution systema and distributed control systemb. Diesel generators will also be installed on these ships, providing the additional flexibility of hybrid systems.

The project owner’s aim is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, a decade ahead of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) revised strategy for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction. The owner estimates that each of its new box ships will mitigate around 25,000 tpy of CO2 emissions on their 700 nautical mile route by using fuel cell power underway and plug-in power from the grid when at the port. The two ships are also expected to match the performance of conventionally-fueled vessels.  

The project will provide another reference for low-temperature PEMFC (LT-PEMFC) technology in the marine industry. Compact, and therefore, favorable for mobile applications, LT-PEMFCs are the most widely available technology in the marine market, although they run on H2 as a fuel. PEMFC installations, configurations and concepts have also earned widespread scrutiny by recognized organizations for maritime regulations. 

However, high-temperature PEMFCs (HT-PEMFCs) are better equipped to handle the less pure, H2-rich gas that can be reformed from methanol, ethanol or natural gas. Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are less mature in marine applications but can also be reformed to provide fuel flexibility. SOFCs achieve higher conversion efficiency than their PEM counterparts.

Shipping context. Understanding a ship’s overall power, distribution, control, automation and propulsion needs is paramount and companies must consider solutions for the main and auxiliary power sources. For example, in terms of use, the LT-PEM is distinguished by generating electricity dynamically, which vessel operators may recognize as comparable to working with a hybrid-diesel setup. Fuel reformation makes this relationship indirect by drawing on stored energy. 

Fuel cell selection must be developed and optimized, whether for commercial owners seeking to enhance peak load efficiency, cruise companies looking to switch to zero emissions in sensitive seas, ferry operators ready to run on H2 when the travel distance is short, or any other vessel type. Various marine fuel cell tests are needed, and extensive modeling of load profiles for diesel, battery, energy storage and fuel cell combinations are required. Real use cases and associated hazard identification (HAZID) and hazard and operability (HAZOP) evaluations have provided valuable information to classification societies. 

Standardization issues. The development phase of marine fuel cell technology has enabled companies to evolve concepts for standardizing installations that will be key to scaling up across the sector. Prefabricated transportable substationsc are designed to house medium- and low-voltage switchgear, critical power equipment and automation cabinets. 

The unitized fuel cell can be loaded on deck and integrated with the vessel’s main power distribution system. It can be used to enhance overall power system load efficiency, provide a short-term power source for reefer containers, enable zero-emissions operations in ports or replace a diesel generator to reduce emissions.

Completing a shipboard installation would involve finding a solution for storing H2 or a fuel reformation unit onboard. As part of the EU-funded BalticSeaH2 project to create a regional H2 economy, a prefabricated transportable substationc will be demonstrated. The project aims to grow regional annual derivative production to more than 600,000 t, with carbon neutral marine bunkers being a key use case.

Takeaway. Certain parties in shipping will remain unmoved by the potential of the marine fuel cell. Some will point out that unless stored under pressure, the H2 fuel requires almost eight times the volume to achieve energy equivalence with a tank of marine gasoil. Others will continue to believe that the relationship between combustion and propulsion is unchallengeable.

For others, the sheer scale of fuel cell power capacity growth over the last decade and the technology’s consideration for cruise, container, research and inland ship cases indicate that the marine fuel cell is asserting its position as a viable source of marine energy. Whether supporting auxiliary energy requirements, improving overall systems efficiency or powering ships outright, the marine fuel cell is an increasingly attractive option that includes standardized features that will bring the still emerging marine technology into the mainstream.H2T


a ABB Onboard DC Grid™ 

b ABB Ability™ System 800xA 

c ABB Electrical House (eHouse) 

About the author

SAMI KANERVA is the Global Product Manager, Fuel Cells for ABB Marine & Ports. He secured his D.Sc. degree in electrical engineering from Helsinki University of Technology, Finland in 2005, and has since worked extensively on technology concepts for renewable energy and marine technology. Kanerva has held several R&D positions, gaining experience in electric machinery and drives, propulsion systems, wind turbines and power grids. He has been leading the development of marine fuel cell systems at ABB since 2017.