LONDON – Hydrogen is touted as an inevitable green fuel of the future. Tell that to the people who will have to ship it across the globe at hypercold temperatures close to those in outer space.
Yet that is exactly what designers are attempting to do.
In the biggest technological challenge for merchant shipping in decades, companies are beginning to develop a new generation of vessels that can deliver hydrogen to heavy industry, betting plants worldwide will convert to the fuel and propel the transition to a lower-carbon economy.
There are at least three projects developing pilot ships that will be ready to test transporting the fuel in Europe and Asia within the next three years, the companies involved said.
The major challenge is to keep the hydrogen chilled at minus 253 degrees Celsius — only 20 degrees above absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature — so it stays in liquid form, while avoiding the risk that parts of a vessel could crack.
That's almost 100 degrees Celsius colder than temperatures needed to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), which required its own shipping revolution about 60 years ago.
Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries has already built the world's first ship to transport hydrogen, Suiso Frontier. It said the prototype vessel was undergoing sea trials, with a demonstration maiden voyage of some 9,000 kilometers from Australia to Japan expected in coming months.
"There is the next phase of the project already running to build a commercial-scale hydrogen carrier by the mid-2020s, with an aim to go commercial in 2030," said Motohiko Nishimura, Kawasaki's vice executive officer.
The 1,250 cubic-meter tank to hold the hydrogen is double-shelled and vacuum-insulated to help maintain the temperature.
Kawasaki's prototype, a relatively modest 116 meters long and 8,000 gross tons, will run on diesel on its maiden voyage, but the company aims to use hydrogen to power future, larger commercial vessels, Nishimura said.
In South Korea, one of the world's major shipbuilding hubs, another project is in the works.
Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering is the first company in the country working on building a commercial liquefied hydrogen carrier, a company spokesperson said.
To tackle the hypercold challenge, the company said it was working with a steelmaker to develop high-strength steel and new welding technology, along with enhanced insulation, to contain the hydrogen and mitigate the risks of pipes or tanks cracking.
On the other side of the world, in Norway, efforts are also underway to build a hydrogen supply chain on the west coast of the country, with one group looking to pilot a test ship that could transport hydrogen to planned filling stations, which would be able to service ships as well as trucks and buses.
Norwegian shipping company Wilhelmsen Group is working on the latter project with partners to build a "roll-on/roll-off" ship that will be able to transport liquid hydrogen by way of containers or trailers that are driven onboard, 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 once we have this demonstration vessel operational the intention will be to build up bunkering hubs on the west coast (of Norway)," Brinchmann said, referring to the filling stations.
Other companies are exploring a different route to avoid the cold conundrum and what may 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 ship to transport compressed hydrogen in gas form.
"The earliest time-frame would be 2025-26," said Nicolas Pocard, vice president marketing and strategic partnerships with Ballard.
The advantage of this gas approach is that it does not require any extreme temperatures. But the downside is that less hydrogen can be transported in a cargo than liquid hydrogen, which is why some of the early movers are opting for the latter.
Wilhelmsen's Brinchmann said that a 12-meter container would carry about 800 to 1,000 kg of pressurized hydrogen gas, but up to 3,000 kilograms of liquid hydrogen.
Such endeavors are far from risk free.
They are expensive, for a start. None of the companies would comment on the cost of their vessels, though three industry specialists said that such ships would cost more than vessels carrying LNG, which can run to $50 to $240 million each depending on size.
"The cost of a vessel transporting hydrogen will mainly be driven by the cost of the storage system. Storing liquid hydrogen could be very expensive because of its complexity," Carlo Raucci, marine decarbonization consultant with ship certifier LR, added separately.
The pilot projects, which are still in experimental stages, must overcome these technical challenges, and also rely on hydrogen catching on as a widely used fuel in coming years.
None of this is certain, though the state support being thrown behind this cleaner-burning fuel suggests it does have a future in the global energy mix.
More than 30 countries, including several in Europe such as France and Germany as well the likes of South Korea and Australia, have released hydrogen rollout plans.
Total planned investments could reach over $300 billion through to 2030 if hundreds of projects using the fuel come to fruition, according to a recent report by the Hydrogen Council association and consultants McKinsey.
The role of shipping would be important to unlocking the potential to convert industries such as steel and cement to hydrogen.
Those two heavy-industry sectors alone are estimated to produce over 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and overcoming their need for fossil fuels is one of the key challenges of the global transition to a lower-carbon economy.
Tiago Braz, VP energy with Norwegian marine technology developer Hoglund, said the company was working with steel specialists and tank designers on engineering a ship cargo system that can be used for transporting liquid hydrogen.
"We are at the early stages with hydrogen carriers. But unlike when LNG was first rolled out, the industry is more flexible to change," Braz said.
"It should be a faster transition," he added.
Specialists say the development of LNG took decades before it was fully rolled out, partly due to the infrastructure and ships required and the few companies willing to invest initially.
Companies active in wider shipping markets are also looking at the possibility of diversifying into transporting hydrogen in the future.
Paul Wogan, chief executive of GasLog Partners, which is a major player in LNG shipping, said it was "open-minded" about moving into hydrogen, while oil tanker owner Euronav said it was examining future energy transportation.
"If that energy is hydrogen tomorrow, we would certainly like to play a role in the emerging industry," Euronav's CEO Hugo De Stoop said.
Others such as leading ship-management company Maersk Tankers said they would be open to managing hydrogen shipping assets.
Johan Petter Tutturen, business director for 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'll be some years before these projects come to fruition, but if hydrogen is to be a part of the future fuel mix then we have to begin exploring all possibilities now."
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