Hard Sails & Green Hydrogen For The Cargo Ships Of The Future

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Quick question: how do you convert a 200,000 ton oceangoing cargo ship from dirty old bunker fuel to clean power? If your answer is “shop locally” you might be on the right track, but the shipping industry isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and it must start contributing to global decarbonization or we’re all going down with the ship, so to speak. The solution may lie in a return to the old ways of wind power, with a new high-tech assist from green hydrogen.

green hydrogen hard sails cargo ship
Old and new collide with “Wind Challenger” research mashup of green hydrogen, hard sails, and cargo ships (artist rendering — view of hard sail from bridge — courtesy of MOL).

Wind Power Returns To Cargo Ships

The idea of returning to the old ways of sailing has been kicking around for some time now, but instead of canvas sheets these new wind-catching devices are taking new and unusual forms. Back in 2011 CleanTechnica took note of a cargo ship project that paired wind power with solar energy. In 2017 an energy storage system entered the mix, and just last year Finland’s Wärtsilä and Norsepower announced a new funnel-shaped wind power device.

Another development occurred last year, when Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd. (MOL for short) announced that it and Oshima Shipbuilding Co., Ltd. won joint approval for a new telescopic sail design.

The new design forms the basis for a project called Wind Challenger, in which the two companies aim to outfit a cargo ship with a single hard sail. They estimate that one hard sail would reduce greenhouse gas emission by approximately 5% or 8%, based on a trip from Japan to Australia or to the US west coast.

That doesn’t sound like much to write home about, but if all goes according to plan, more sails will be added and the results will presumably be more impressive.

With Green Hydrogen, Buh-Bye Doldrums

That’s all well and good, but the fuel savings will evaporate when the ship hits the doldrums. If cargo ships are to use wind power and keep on schedule and reduce greenhouse gas emissions all at the same time, then a substitute for bunker fuel must be found.

That could explain the latest news from MOL. On Monday, the company announced that it has joined a multi-partner research collaboration called the Wind Hunter Project. The idea is to use an on-board green hydrogen production system to power the ship during low wind periods, instead of relying on bunker fuel.

Hydrogen can be combusted as a fuel, or it can be deployed in a fuel cell to produce electricity. The Wind Hunter project is going with the fuel cell approach.

For those of you new to the topic, most of the global supply of hydrogen is produced from fossil sources (boo!), but a green version of hydrogen can also be “split” from water with an electrolyzer system (yay!).

As the name indicates, electrolyzers run on electricity. If fossil power is involved in the electricity, the green angle disappears.

Fortunately the cost of renewable energy has dropped, which partly accounts for rapid growth in the green hydrogen market. The falling cost of electrolzyers is also helping to stimulate more interest in sustainable hydrogen.

Japan is putting some serious academic and corporate firepower into the Wind Hunter project, which also includes Ouchi Ocean Consultant, Inc., the National Maritime Research Institute of National Institute of Maritime, Port and Aviation Technology, Smart Design Co., Ltd., Graduate School of Frontier Sciences of The University of Tokyo, West Japan Fluid Engineering Laboratory Co., Ltd., Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (ClassNK), and Miraihene Planning LLC.

But Wait, There’s More Green Hydrogen In Store

The research team plans to start small, with a feasibility study based on the system’s performance in a sailing yacht. If all goes according to plan, though, the payoff could be huge.

Using green hydrogen to power cargo ships at sea is only part of the plan. Hydrogen is both a fuel and and a transportable energy storage medium, which means that excess hydrogen produced at sea could be offloaded for use on land.

If you have ever seen a busy seaport, perhaps you have seen fleets of cargo ships hovering nearby, waiting for their turn to dock. A floating green hydrogen system would put all that idle tonnage to use.

To make matters even more interesting, there is a movement afoot to pair offshore wind turbines with green hydrogen production, which can then be used to make green ammonia, which is a zero emission combustible fuel as well as a main ingredient in fertilizer among many other uses.

The global cargo ship industry is ramping up its decarbonization efforts and green ammonia fuel is already part of the plan.

A Metal Assist For Green Hydrogen Storage

If the Wind Hunter project sounds complicated, it is, and one of the complications is how to store the hydrogen. Typically, hydrogen gas is compressed into specialized tanks.

“Hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel; however, its low ambient temperature density results in a low energy per unit volume, therefore requiring the development of advanced storage methods that have potential for higher energy density,” explains the US Department of Energy.

One of those solutions is a class of material called metal organic frameworks, which can suck up hydrogen like a sponge. The Wind Hunter Project seems to be moving in a different but similar direction, with a space reserved for a “Hydrogen Storage Alloy.” That could refer to an aluminum alloy, which various researchers in Japan and elsewhere have been working on for quite some time.

As for the United States, the Energy Department has devoted a whole program to the development of on-board, solid state hydrogen storage, under the banner of the Hydrogen Materials Advanced Research Consortium (HyMARC), composed of Sandia National Laboratories, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

HyMARC is just the tip of the hydrogen research iceberg. The consortium is part of the Energy Department’s Energy Materials Network, which “aims to accelerate solutions to the nation’s toughest materials challenges in the energy sector” by setting up various consortia tasked with facilitating stakeholder access to national labs and other resources.

To be clear, much of this advanced materials R&D can apply to fossil-sourced hydrogen storage, so green hydrogen fans better start making some noise if they really want to push fossil hydrogen out of the sparkling green economy of the future.

That seems to be what the Energy Department is thinking. In recent years it has begun focusing more research dollars directly on water-sourced hydrogen. Among the projects is one of the Energy Materials Network consortia called HydroGEN, which is shorthand for its mission of generating hydrogen from water.

Aside from electrolysis, HydroGEN is putting photoelectrochemical and solar thermochemical options on the table, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image: View of cargo ship with hard sail from inside the bridge, courtesy of MOL.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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