Anticipated to play a significant part in accelerating the industry-wide adoption of sustainable solutions for marine e-mobility, ABB and Ballard Power Systems recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on developing next-generation fuel cell systems.

The new fuel cell power system for the marine industry will be jointly designed, developed and validated, and will help shipowners meet the increasing demands for clean operations.

Ballard and ABB sign MoU

As a global provider of innovative clean energy solutions, Ballard has years of experience in the deployment of hydrogen (H2) fuel cell systems for land-based use, with the first developments dating back to 1983.

The fuel cell specialist’s work with marine H2 as a fuel goes back to their role as advisors to the Canadian military.

“The Canadian Navy has had fuel cells in their submarines since 1993,” George Skinner, a safety expert with Ballard, said. “This fact alone demystifies H2 as high risk – the last place you want a dangerous fuel is on board is in a steel tube hundreds of meters under the sea.”

The company’s focus in the use of H2 for marine applications turned to more commercial areas around 2000, with a few projects for large cruise and ferry companies.

“Beyond its properties as a fuel, H2 is interesting as a carbon neutral alternative. It basically sidesteps emissions issues that the maritime industry needs to resolve,” Skinner observed.

He sees the trend toward marine H2 fuel as an exciting opportunity. “The quantities in marine will get energy companies engaged, which will solve the infrastructure conundrum. Once H2 is available in ports for ships it can be used to fuel trucks and other movers of goods and people. The onset of marine H2 will be a major catalyst for kicking off the H2 economy.”

Size matters

“The bigger the better for fuel cells,” Skinner said. “H2 takes more room than fossil fuels, but it is lighter, and it can be compressed to very high pressures. Basically, you just keep liquid H2 in a giant thermos. The tank is heavy, so it is not always efficient for small machines. A H2 solution is likely more practical for shipping, where they can also have a better insulated tank.”

DNV GL, a globally leading quality assurance and risk management company, published the first rules for H2 on ships in January 2018. The rules are linked into codes and standards for other industries with a longer H2 history.

“The basic principles are the same for LNG or other low flashpoint fuels. We already know how to handle liquid gas, so the technology is broken in. The real challenge now is developing the infrastructure.”


Source: ABB

Though Skinner reported an uptick in interest from inland waterway operators in recent months, ferries and cruise are still the frontrunners. “For the cruise industry, it is a combination of environmental, regulatory and marketing advantages. They are looking at the long term, and they would rather be set up for H2 than rely on the future of carbon fuels.”

“We believe that as a first step, the cruise industry will look toward a hybrid solution, using fuel cells to power hotel functions in ports and when in protected fjords. Eventually they could apply it to provide power for the entire vessel, including propulsion.”

Skinner pointed out the many potential advantages for H2 as marine fuel. “All-electric drives are already common, so the power plants could simply be exchanged. Ultimately the need for diesel on a ship would be greatly reduced or eliminated. H2 systems also allow more freedom of placement in the vessel and H2-powered fuel cells produce water that can be used for other purposes on board.

It’s the same, only different

With decades of experience, Skinner can assure the public that H2 is not necessarily more dangerous or safer than other fuels – just different. “Other considerations have to be made. H2 has a less explosive energy, it burns quicker and colder, and it disperses straight up. It is very easy to ignite, so it is important to prevent leaks, install sufficient detection systems, and always have enough ventilation. The International Code of Safety for Ships using Gases or other Low-flashpoint Fuels already lays out ways to deal with it, and DNV GL is looking into improved piping systems. New codes and standards are also under development.”

“Ultimately, the objective is to make a failsafe fuel cell power plant. We have done this on land, so it can be done at sea. Fuel cells have a long life and they are relatively low in maintenance. Just turn them on and let them run.”

Skinner maintained that the main problems with H2 have been connected to perceptions from the past, such as negative associations with the Hindenburg case – the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg occurred on 6th May 6 (1937), as it caught fire and was destroyed – and the H2 bomb. “In fact, the H2 bomb is a nuclear reaction, so this is a total misrepresentation. H2 is ubiquitous in industry, aerospace, and many forms of transportation.”

He pointed out NASA’s decades of experience using H2 as rocket fuel, noting that Viking Cruises have been in discussions with NASA to learn more about loading the fuel.

Ballard Power also runs its own fuel cell lab on liquid H2. “We have been getting deliveries twice a week for 20 years. Getting it from shore to ship will be basically the same thing. After all,” he smiled, “it’s only rocket science.”