EU project prototypes methanol fuel cell for ships

19 Mar 2008

After nearly one and a half years of research and development, the EU-funded METHAPU (Validation of renewable methanol based auxiliary power systems for commercial vessels) project is about to start trials on a prototype of a methanol-based solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) unit. The prototype will be tried and tested for performance and emissions under real-life conditions onboard a car transport vessel involved in international trade.

According to Det Norske Veritas (DNV), one of the five project partners, the world's fleet of ships is the source of two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, ten to 15 percent of nitrous oxides (NOx) and four to six percent of sulphur oxides. DNV specialises in risk management in various areas and operates internationally. "'Fuel cells represent an interesting possible solution to the problem of reducing local and regional emissions,"' the DNV comments in its report on 'Fuel cells in ships: safety & reliability?. "The technology is, however, still fairly unproven."

This is what the EUR 2 million METHAPU project, to which the EU contributes EUR 1 million, is set to change. The one-year trial will help to assess the maturity of methanol-based technology and its suitability for daily use in the shipping sector. At the same time, the test will make it possible to quantify the short-term and long-term environmental impact of such a system in comparison with conventional systems. These systems still tend to rely on battery power or generators to provide power independent of the ship?s propulsion source or main electric system.

While the prototype unit will only produce 20 kW, it could, for example, be comprised of four 250 kW modules and hence provide about 1 MW of auxiliary power, explains application engineer Carl-Erik Sandstram from the Finnish engine manufacturer Wartsila which is responsible for coordinating the project.

However, before the system can be incorporated into commercial vessels, there are still some hurdles that have to be overcome, mainly regarding fuel cell technology itself. "The SOFC type fuel cell has not reached the same stage as, for instance, PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells," Sandstram says. According to him, challenges include high temperatures, as SOFCs generally operate in the temperature area between 600 and 900 degrees C. As a result, the challenge is "getting the components and the materials to meet these environmental demands," Sandstram adds. "And then of course the life time of the fuel cells and the stacks. That?s the relevant component in the whole system." Operational safety, however, should not give rise to concern, Sandstram thinks. Although the toxicity of methanol and its transformation into hydrogen might create safety issues, he is confident that the ventilation system and gas detectors in the fuel cell room along with other systems will help to detect and prevent gas leakage. And despite safety concerns, methanol is simply "very appropriate for this kind of technology," he says. "It?s available almost everywhere and it?s possible as a renewable fuel. In addition, it?s a liquid."

Sandstram believes in the project?s success and that the fuel cells will be applied in the future not only in auxiliary power systems on ships, but also in onshore installations and power plants. And at some point, "it might be used for propulsion power in the marine sector as well," Sandstram predicts. "It?s feasible if we try."

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