LONDON (Reuters) – Hydrogen is touted as an inevitable green fuel of the future. Tell the people who will have to ship it across the world in super-cold temperatures close to those of outer space.
Yet that’s exactly what the designers are trying to do.
In the merchant navy’s biggest technological challenge in decades, companies are starting to develop a new generation of ships capable of supplying hydrogen to heavy industry, betting factories around the world will convert to fuel and propel the transition to a low carbon economy.
There are at least three projects developing pilot ships that will be ready to test fuel transport to Europe and Asia within the next three years, the companies involved told Reuters.
The major challenge is to keep the hydrogen cooled down to minus 253 degrees Celsius – just 20 degrees above absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature – so that it remains in liquid form, while avoiding the risk of parts of a container will crack.
That’s almost 100 degrees Celsius colder than the temperatures needed to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), which required its own maritime revolution about 60 years ago.
Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries has already built the world’s first hydrogen-carrying vessel, Suiso Frontier. He told Reuters that the prototype ship was undergoing sea trials, with a maiden demonstration voyage of around 9,000 km between Australia and Japan in the coming months.
“The next phase of the project is already underway to build a commercial scale hydrogen transporter by the mid-2020s, with the goal of going commercial in 2030,” said Motohiko Nishimura, deputy general manager from Kawasaki.
The 1,250 cubic meter tank for holding hydrogen is jacketed and vacuum insulated to help maintain temperature.
Kawasaki’s relatively modest 116-meter-long, 8,000-gross-ton prototype will run on diesel on its maiden voyage, but the company aims to use the hydrogen to power future larger commercial vessels, Nishimura said. .
SUPER STRENGTH STEEL
In South Korea, one of the world’s main shipbuilding hubs, another project is underway.
Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering is the first company in the country to work on building a commercial liquefied hydrogen transporter, a company spokesperson said.
To meet the hyper-cold challenge, the company said it was working with a steelmaker to develop high-strength steel and new welding technology, as well as improved insulation, to contain the hydrogen and reduce the risk of cracking pipes or tanks.
Halfway around the world, in Norway, efforts are also underway to build a hydrogen supply chain on the country’s west coast, with a group seeking to pilot a test vessel that could carry hydrogen. to planned service stations, which would be able to service ships as well as trucks and buses.
The Norwegian shipping company Wilhelmsen Group is working on this latest project with partners to build a “roll-on / roll-off” vessel that will be able to transport liquid hydrogen by means of containers or trailers that are taken on board, said Per Brinchmann, the company’s vice president, special projects.
The ship is expected to be operational in the first half of 2024, he added.
“We believe that once this demonstration vessel is operational, the intention will be to build bunkering centers on the west coast (of Norway),” Brinchmann said, referring to the gas stations.
Other companies are exploring a different way to avoid the cold conundrum and what can happen when hydrogen atoms interact with metal.
Canada’s Ballard Power Systems and Australia’s Global Energy Ventures, for example, are working together to develop a vessel to transport compressed hydrogen as a gas.
“The first deadline would be 2025/26,” said Nicolas Pocard, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships with Ballard.
The advantage of this gas approach is that it does not require extreme temperatures. But the downside is that less hydrogen can be carried in a cargo than liquid hydrogen, which is why some of the early players are opting for the latter.
Brinchmann from Wilhelmsen said a 40-foot container would carry around 800 to 1,000 kg of pressurized hydrogen gas, but up to 3,000 kg of liquid hydrogen.
COMPLEX AND COST
Such ventures are far from risk free.
They are expensive, to begin with; none of the companies commented on the cost of their ships, although three industry experts told Reuters the ships would cost more than ships carrying LNG, which can cost between $ 50 million and $ 240 million. dollars each depending on their size.
“The cost of a vessel carrying hydrogen will primarily depend on the cost of the storage system. Storing liquid hydrogen could be very expensive due to its complexity, ”added Carlo Raucci, marine decarbonation consultant with ship certifier LR, separately.
The pilot projects, which are still in the experimental stage, must overcome these technical challenges and also rely on the capture of hydrogen as a widely used fuel in the years to come.
None of this is certain, although state support for this cleaner fuel suggests it has a future in the global energy mix.
More than 30 countries, including several in Europe such as France and Germany as well as South Korea and Australia, have published hydrogen deployment plans.
The total planned investment could reach more than $ 300 billion through 2030 if hundreds of projects using the fuel materialize, according to a recent report by the Hydrogen Council and McKinsey consultants.
The role of maritime transport would be important in unlocking the potential for converting industries such as steel and cement into hydrogen.
These two heavy industry sectors alone are estimated to produce more than 10% of global CO2 emissions, and overcoming their need for fossil fuels is one of the main challenges in the global transition to a low carbon economy. carbon.
FASTER THAN LNG?
Tiago Braz, vice president of energy at Norwegian marine technology developer Hoglund, said the company is working with steel specialists and tank designers to design a ship cargo system that can be used for the transport of liquid hydrogen.
“We are in the early stages with hydrogen carriers. But unlike when LNG was first deployed, the industry is more flexible to change, ”said Braz.
“It should be a faster transition,” he added.
Experts say LNG development took decades before it was fully deployed, in part due to the infrastructure and vessels required and the few companies willing to invest up front.
Companies active in broader maritime transport markets are also considering the possibility of diversifying into hydrogen transport in the future.
Paul Wogan, managing director of GasLog Partners which is a major player in the transport of LNG, said he was “open-minded” about the switch to hydrogen, while the owner of the tanker Euronav said that he was examining the future transport of energy.
“If this energy is hydrogen tomorrow, we would certainly like to play a role in the emerging industry,” said Euronav CEO Hugo De Stoop.
Others, like leading ship management company Maersk Tankers, said they would be open to managing hydrogen transport assets.
Johan Petter Tutturen, commercial director of gas carriers with ship certifier DNV Maritime, said his company was involved in concept studies for the transport of hydrogen in bulk at sea.
“It will be a few years before these projects materialize, but if hydrogen is to be part of the future energy mix, we must start exploring all the possibilities now.”
Additional reporting by Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo, Heekyong Yang and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Veronica Brown and Pravin Char