When discussing a sustainable, future-oriented form of propulsion for transport and logistics, the word “hydrogen” comes up very quickly. Be it in cars, buses, trains, trucks or, of course, ships – hydrogen is regarded as a drive source with high potential, both ecological and economical.
Not only does the combustion of hydrogen – to put it simply – only emit water as an emission, but the introduction of a hydrogen economy would also create new structures and synergy opportunities from which all stakeholders could benefit.
For shipping in particular, using hydrogen could mean a big step forward on the decarbonisation pathway. Also, as the deployment is only sustainable when the required electricity is generated by renewable energy sources, an increased uptake of hydrogen-based fuels could bring a significant boost for the expansion of the offshore wind industry.
Of course, hydrogen is not yet being used on a large scale in the maritime industry; however, more and more shipbuilders, suppliers and designers have already committed themselves to research and the use of hydrogen-based applications at an early stage. Only a few days before this issue of Ship&Offshore went to print, German shipyard group, Lürssen, announced that it is building its first yacht with fuel cell technology, for example.
Across Europe, further projects, such as the Norwegian maritime value chain initiative for liquid hydrogen, Aurora, and the concept of a hydrogen-powered vessel on the River Seine, are making headlines.
After the supposed panacea of LNG, with benefits that are undeniable, but with drawbacks as a fossil fuel which mean that climate targets could not be achieved on this path, have we found a new beacon of hope?
In order to evaluate hydrogen as a potential fuel for the maritime sector, one needs to look first at its areas of application. The uptake of pure, liquefied, hydrogen as fuel is seen as improbable due to high capex, storage and safety issues. However, it plays an integral role as a building block in the production of carbon-neutral fuels, such as e-ammonia and e-methanol.
The production of these synthetic fuels is still in its infancy, which means that prices are not yet competitive. For example, the cost of e-methanol depends to a large extent on the cost of hydrogen and CO2. The cost of CO2 in turn depends on the source from which it is captured, i.e., from biomass, industrial processes or direct air capture.
With e-methanol prices between USD 800/tonne and 2,400/tonne, a recent study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in partnership with the Methanol Institute estimates a two-and-a-half to eight-fold higher price of e-methanol compared with current methanol prices in Europe, Asia and America. With the right policies and the anticipated decrease in renewable power prices, the study concludes that synthetic methanol could be cost-competitive by 2050 or even earlier.
Engines and fuel systems for e-ammonia on the other hand still entail significant technical and safety challenges that need to be solved first.
It would of course be desirable if hydrogen-based fuels could be adopted on a large scale sooner and that all safety and economic imponderables had already been cleared out of the way. However, current concepts and initiatives, as well as the people who are driving the technologies forward, give cause for optimism in any case.