Image credit: ABB

ABB To Provide Hydrogen Fuel Cell Propulsion Systems For Container Ships

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Emissions from ocean-going ships are a serious issue. Maritime transportation contributes nearly 3% of annual carbon-dioxide emissions, and this is predicted to increase to 17% by 2050 if no changes are adapted, according to ABB, an international engineering and sustainability company headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. One of ABB’s areas of focus is hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The company explains that fuel cells generate energy through an electro-chemical reaction. There is no combustion involved as the fuel cell converts fuel directly to electricity and heat. There are several fuel cell technologies available. One of the most promising zero emission technologies is the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. The PEM fuel cell converts the chemical energy from hydrogen into electricity through an electro-chemical reaction with oxygen, emitting only clean water and heat.

Fuel cells have higher efficiency than combustion engines and the technology allows energy to be concentrated more densely than in petroleum fuels. If renewables are used to produce the hydrogen fuel, the entire energy chain will be clean, providing a true zero emission fuel.

Fuel Cell Powered Ships For Samskip

This week, the company announced it will collaborate with Samskip Group, a multi-modal shipping company based in the Netherlands which plans to be net zero by 2040, and India’s Cochin Shipyard to build two 135-meter-long container ships, each powered by a 3.2 MW ABB hydrogen fuel cell system. Each ship is expected to eliminate 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

The maritime industry is under heavy pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and promote other sustainability technologies. Alternative energy sources such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells will be needed to meet stricter emissions targets. Since the output of both batteries and fuel cells is unregulated DC voltage, their connection to the vessel electrical system can be accomplished utilizing many configurations, each with its specific features such as maximum source-to-load efficiency, overall system performance, size, weight, and cost, ABB says.

The two new container ships will be the first of their kind to utilize a comprehensive hydrogen fuel cell power distribution system supplied by ABB. Built by Cochin Shipyard Ltd, the largest shipbuilding and maintenance facility in India, the 135-meter ships are due for delivery in Q3 and Q4 of 2025, respectively. Both vessels will be operating between Oslo Fjord and Rotterdam, a distance of approximately 700 nautical miles.

In addition to the integration of hydrogen fuel cells, ABB’s comprehensive package includes the new, more compact version of its Onboard DC Grid power distribution system that will ensure the optimal use of energy on board. The vessels will also feature ABB’s energy storage solution control and automation technology, ensuring seamless operation of onboard equipment. Leveraging ABB Ability Remote Diagnostic Systems, the vessels will benefit from optimized safety and performance through 24/7 remote support.

fuel cell
Image credit: ABB

Fuel cells turn the chemical energy from hydrogen into electricity through an electro-chemical reaction. With the use of renewables to produce the hydrogen, the entire energy chain will be clean. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is considered as one of the most promising solutions to support shipping industry’s decarbonization agenda, with the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency. ABB says.

Fuel Cells & System Efficiency

Let’s be clear. Measured in terms of total system efficiency, hydrogen fuel cells take a back seat to batteries when it comes to moving things from place to place. There’s a reason why Elon Musk refers to them as “fool cells.” Conceptually, it makes less sense to generate electricity from renewable sources, then use it to make green hydrogen which must be stored under tremendous pressure in heavy tanks, only to convert it back to electricity in a fuel cell to power the electric motors that move cars, trucks, ships, and other transportation devices forward.

Every energy conversion involves certain losses. The more conversions, the more losses; there’s no getting around that. With batteries, renewable energy gets stored and then used later to power the motors that do work. Fewer conversions mean lower losses. But… putting enough batteries into a container ship to power it for 700 nautical miles with an adequate power reserve to handle contingencies while underway would be a challenge using today’s battery technology.

Balancing the ideal with the practical, fuel cell powered ships seem like a smart plan to lower emissions from shipping. Fuel cells are certainly preferable to LNG, methanol, ethanol, or ammonia, which are also being promoted as ways to lower carbon emissions. And they are clearly superior to diesel powered vessels that burn tar-like heavy bunker oil.

The hydrogen fuel cell project is in line with the International Maritime Organization’s revised greenhouse gas reduction strategy, which calls for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by 2050 with a commitment to increase the uptake of low-carbon fuels by 2030.

Press Statements

fuel cell
ABB whole ship power management system. Image credit: ABB

“ABB is delighted to collaborate with Samskip and Cochin Shipyard Limited on this project which will help to avoid emissions and reduce operational expenses,” said Juha Koskela, president of the ABB Marine & Ports division. “ABB is at the forefront of shipping’s most ambitious plans for decarbonization and setting new standards for green maritime transportation.”

“Samskip’s level of ambition on emissions requires partners like ABB, with similar objectives for innovation and the willingness to invest in the future,” said Erik Hofmeester, the head of fleet management for Samskip Group. “These ships are a milestone for the maritime industry, delivering hydrogen fuel cells as a clean and renewable technology.”

“Cochin Shipyard is proud to partner with ABB in strengthening our position as an early mover in sustainable technology and supporting India’s vision to become a global hub for building green ships,” said Madhu Nair, chair of Cochin Shipyard Limited.

The project is co-funded by Norwegian state enterprise ENOVA. Operating under Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment, ENOVA promotes a shift towards more environmentally friendly energy consumption and production, as well as the development of energy and climate technology.

The Takeaway

It should be pointed out that Norway, with its abundance of hydroelectric power, is one of the primary suppliers of green hydrogen in the world. If the hydrogen used to fuel hydrogen fuel cell powered ships is obtained by conventional means from reforming methane gas, the whole purpose  of doing this goes out the window — or out to sea, as the case may be.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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