Fuel Cells

Powering the Transition to Zero-emissions with Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A key zero-emission technology that will be a critical enabler for decarbonizing the marine industry—now and in the future—is hydrogen fuel cells.

By Thomas T. Petersen, Product Line Manager, Ballard Power Systems Europe

Credit: Ballard
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By now, it is a well-known fact that the marine industry contributes significantly to the greenhouse gasses causing climate change—and the impact is predicted to rise as the demand for shipping by sea increases. Action is needed now, and the majority of ship operators are adopting or planning zero-emission solutions to accommodate upcoming emission reduction targets.

A key zero-emission technology that will be a critical enabler for decarbonizing the marine industry—now and in the future—is hydrogen fuel cells.

Today, hydrogen fuel cells are powering thousands of commercial vehicles on roads around the world. Now, thanks to their proven success in the heavy-duty transport sector, fuel cells are also being integrated into marine vessels. And 2023 is fast making its mark in the history of marine technology as several industry-first hydrogen-powered vessels take to the water on their maiden journeys.

Benefits of hydrogen and fuel cells for the marine industry

Several complementary zero-emission technologies are needed if we are to meet the upcoming climate targets set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Batteries, for example, are a great candidate for smaller ships and vessels with shorter, consistent routes. However, batteries also present limitations for vessels with long-range operations—and this is where hydrogen fuel cells come into play. Fuel cell powered vessels do not compromise on performance as they can sail longer and travel farther before refueling, compared to ships running solely on batteries.

Fuel cells generate DC power compatible with modern ship electric and hybrid architectures and can be deployed in parallel, dispatchable configurations to meet variable power requirements. It is a stable and reliable power source that produce almost no noise or vibration onboard the ship.

Compared to fossil fuels, hydrogen fuel cells also offer long-term cost savings and lower TCO for ship operators. Even though the initial costs of converting to hydrogen fuel cells may be higher, the ongoing costs of maintenance are low as they require very little attention and have a long service life. In addition, as the hydrogen infrastructure is expanded and more hydrogen are produced from renewable energy sources, we could look ahead to a future with more stable fuel costs.

Currently, legislation is more focused toward larger vessels, above 5,000 gross tonnage, but the same legislation is anticipated in lighter segments such as ferries, inland cargo vessels and short-sea shipping, that industry players are already addressing. Looking at the global market of 90,000 vessels, there is still approximately 8,000 vessels below 5,000 gross tonnage that are candidates for hydrogen fuel cell integration.

How does a fuel cell work on board a ship?

A fuel cell vessel is powered by a hybrid electric system that includes fuel cells and batteries working seamlessly together to provide efficient zero-emission power. The hybrid system is designed to enable the fuel cells to operate at a steady state for optimal fuel efficiency, and the batteries are sized for transient power requirements.

Just like batteries, fuel cells produce electricity with high efficiency through an electrochemical process. The difference is, with fuel cells, that energy is stored separately in the form of hydrogen fuel. Consequently, if fuel is available, the fuel cell modules will produce electricity. The only by-products of its use are water, water vapor and heat, and when fueled with hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources, a fuel cell solution is a true well-to-wake zero-emission power source.

Credit: Ballard

Are fuel cells ready for marine applications?

Fuel cells have long been considered a promising solution for the marine industry. With a proven technology that is both mature and reliable, more fuel cell producers are now working on specific solutions for the marine industry. In 2020, Ballard introduced its in-house developed 200kW fuel cell module for marine applications, FCwave, and in April 2022, FCwave received the world's first DNV Type Approval certification.

This certification confirms the module meets the stringent safety, functional, design and documentation requirements necessary for the marine sector to take the next step in deploying zero-emission operations. With the Type Approval, many of the major barriers for adoption have been removed by ensuring one-time design, approval avoiding repetitive design reviews. It reduces risks potentially impacting product safety and simplifies integration planning, complexity and time.

Global marine operators rely on official validation that a vessel and its key components meet regulatory, technical, safety and environmental requirements. A seagoing vessel is required to be certified by a classification society ensuring that the ship's design and workings are fully in accordance with the standards set by their class. In return, operators are not only assured that the stringent rules and regulations are met, they are also getting a mark of quality by an unbiased third party. Thus, the Type Approval is highly important in building global market confidence and is an important step in recognizing fuel cells as a viable zero-emission solution for the marine industry.

Putting fuel cells to work

Several industry-first hydrogen-powered vessels will take to the water this year. This is the culmination of multi-year developments where partners across the marine industry. Integrators, vessel operators, fuel cell suppliers and infrastructure providers have collaborated closely to break new ground to launch zero-emission propulsion solutions with new technology.

Since 2016, Ballard has been involved in the industry's first marine projects and started to test fuel cells on board ships.

This year, we have already seen the launch of Norled's MF Hydra, the world's first liquid hydrogen-powered ferry, operating in Norway. In the second half of 2023 we will also see the launch of FPS Waal, a retrofitted cargo vessel that will operate on the Rhine River in Holland as well as Zulu06, the first inland cargo transport vessel that will sail on the river Seine in Paris. All three vessels are powered by Ballard's FCwave fuel cell module.

Learnings from such different types of vessel projects have benefited the development of a dedicated marine fuel cell product -through continuous improvement and testing in real-world marine environments.

The benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology in the marine industry are clear, and seeing the first commercial sailings this year will help us to increase market confidence in hydrogen fuel cells and encourage more ship operators to deploy zero-emission solutions.

About the Author:

Thomas T. Petersen joined Ballard in November 2021 as Product Line Manager for Marine. Thomas came from a position at CS electric, one of BPSE's development partners. Thomas previously worked for Maersk Drilling for seven years, and he has been in the marine business all through his 25-year career. He has significant marine expertise across the value chain, asset optimization and certification from Director and VP positions with Maersk, Macartney and ABS (American Bureau of Shipping). (Credit: Ballard)

July 2023