The new IGF Code could accelerate the uptake of fuel cells

10 Apr 2014
Installation aboard the Pure Car and Truck Carrier (PCTC) Undine in Germany

Installation aboard the Pure Car and Truck Carrier (PCTC) Undine in Germany

The industry is now well placed to adopt fuel cell technologies, but it will take time, writes Wendy Laursen

Historically, a major inhibitor for the uptake of fuel cells has been a reluctance on the part of shipping to accept alternative low flash point fuels due to SOLAS restrictions. That situation could now be ready to change. The adoption of fuels such as LNG and methanol, the development of the IGF Code and a generally more receptive culture towards new technologies outside known prescriptive rules mean that the industry is now well placed to adopt fuel cell technologies, says John Bradshaw, lead project engineer at Lloyd’s Register (LR) Marine.

“If the current fuel cell technologies can significantly increase their maximum power outputs or reduce unit cost, then it is possible that there could be a serious acceleration in fuel cell adoption,” says Mr Bradshaw. “The advances which will cause this acceleration are likely to be driven by other industries such as the automotive sector which are investing heavily in fuel cell technologies to increase unit power output and energy density and to reduce cost.”

LR is already seeing growing interest in fuel cell power and propulsion packages for small vessels and for auxiliary power units (effectively zero emissions harbour generators) for larger vessels. Fuel cells are technically viable for small vessels and have been used in submarine power systems for a number of years.

Power output for larger vessels is still a major consideration. Currently the power outputs available from fuel cells remain modest, and the system costs are high compared to a conventional diesel installation. The maximum power from a fuel cell module varies greatly depending on the technology chosen, but most commercially available units are rated in tens of kilowatts and can then be scaled up by installing banks of fuel cell modules. Since even an auxiliary power unit for a large ship will generally need to be rated in terms of hundreds of kilowatts, and potentially in megawatts, a fuel cell power solution for this sector would need a large number of fuel cell modules.

“In terms of fuel storage, existing fuel cell solutions favour smaller vessels of short range where storage of compressed hydrogen is viable. Larger systems can use other fuels, such as methanol or LNG, but the relative advantages of fuel cells are currently less clear when these fuels can also be readily utilised with more conventional reciprocating or rotating machinery and deliver power outputs sufficient to meet the demands of the largest and most high powered marine installations,” says Mr Bradshaw.

Hydrogen is the most common fuel for fuel cells. Almost any hydrogen rich substance can be used as fuel, and alternatives such as methanol, LNG, liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHC) and ammonia are predicted to be popular. These may require quite complex onboard reforming, although some fuel cell stacks can operate on fuels such as LNG directly and conversion of LOHCs to hydrogen is relatively straightforward. Even when fuels other than hydrogen are used, they will generally be converted on board to hydrogen or hydrogen rich compounds or undergo reactions in the fuel cell modules to release hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen is technically possible; however the boiling point of hydrogen is -252°C, which is challenging in terms of storage solutions and a supply infrastructure.

Most currently available hydrogen is generated from natural gas feed stock (other hydrocarbons can be used). This is not a renewable source of fuel, but hydrogen can be generated from numerous other processes such as electrolysis and thermolysis using water as a feed stock. This offers the potential of a renewable source of fuel, but traditionally these alternatives have been expensive and energy intensive off-setting the environmental benefits. There are many research projects and investment streams to improve the efficiency of alternative hydrogen production processes which offer the potential for a genuinely sustainable, clean fuel if they reach fruition.

LR was heavily involved in the METHAPU project which put a Wärtsilä solid oxide fuel cell auxiliary power unit installed on the Wallenius pure car carrier Undine. “This was successful. There is a lot of interest in fuel cell technology proving projects such as METHAPU, and we are working with partners who are planning full service application of fuel cell systems on board their vessels,” says Mr Bradshaw. “These include installations intended to use compressed hydrogen and larger systems which will reform on board.”

Despite this growing interest, the change towards incorporation of fuel cells into shipping will most probably be a progressive evolution that is dependent on the technological development and the scalability of fuel cells, says Mr Bradshaw. A tipping point has not yet been reached that will drive the accelerated adoption of fuel cells, and LR sees LNG and methanol as providing the main low-sulphur alternatives to heavy fuel oil until around 2030.

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