August 3, 2007 / 1:32 PM / 13 years ago

Fuel cell technology to help clean up shipping

OSLO (Reuters) - A group of north European companies aims to show how fuel cells can clean up ship engines, which now use filthy fuels such as oil refinery residues and can spew out hundreds of times more pollutants than automobiles.

The world's largest, longest, and tallest, transatlantic liner "Queen Mary 2" leaves its dock at the Alstom shipyards in St Nazaire, western France, September 25, 2003. A group of north European companies aims to show how fuel cells can clean up ship engines, which now use filthy fuels such as oil refinery residues and can spew out hundreds of times more pollutants than automobiles. REUTERS/Daniel Joubert

The companies plan to install a clean fuel-cell engine aboard a supply ship in 2008 and believe that a large share of the marine world will follow suit within 25 years.

“Green” engines for ships will gain footing in the fiercely competitive global shipping industry, they say, as technology advances and relatively lax environmental norms toughen.

“Stricter regulations coupled with policies favoring green solutions will in future years more than compensate for the higher initial investment costs of fuel cells,” Tomas Tronstad, who heads the cross-industry fuel cell project for Norwegian ship classifier Det Norske Veritas (DNV), told Reuters.

“We hope that in a decade there will be many similar projects around the world and in a quarter century a large part of the marine world could be on fuel cells,” Tronstad said.

Iceland already plans to convert its entire fishing fleet to hydrogen fuel cell engines as part of its environmental drive.

The shipping industry says it is more green than other modes of transport considering the huge amount of trade that ships carry, although the heavy fuel used in shipping emits 700 times more sulphur dioxide than diesel exhausts from road vehicles.

DNV estimates that fuel cells — which generate electric power from a chemical process instead of combustion like regular engines — now cost about six times more than diesel generators.

But the technology can be up to 50 percent more efficient and much cleaner, helping to curb high costs of fuel and, as many expect in the future, the high costs of polluting.

When powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), as the first full-scale test model will be, carbon dioxide emissions are cut in half compared to diesel engines running on marine bunker fuel and sulphur and nitrogen oxide exhausts are nearly eliminated.

Fuel cells have no moving parts, slashing maintenance needs and making them inherently silent and vibration-free.


Norwegian shipping group Eidesvik Offshofre ASA plans to install a 330 kW fuel cell system on an oilfield supply vessel next year. It will be one of several engines on the ship, all powered by LNG stored in refrigerated tanks on board.

LNG tanks take up precious onboard space and need to be filled relatively often — about once per week according to Eidesvik — limiting the ships’ range to coastal waters of regions with developed LNG infrastructure.

“These engines will be best suited for short-route shipping and vessels with predictable operational patterns...such as oilfield supply vessels or ferries,” said Kjell Sandaker, fuel cell project developer at Eidesvik.

The fuel cell will be built by MTU CFC Solutions, a unit of German engine maker Tognum. Finnish ship and industrial engine builder Wartsila and Norway-based consultant Vik-Sandvik are also taking part in the project.

LNG is preferred to hydrogen-fed fuel cells, whose only exhaust is heat and water, because of the problems in storing large amounts of hydrogen and high costs of producing it, the project says.

But Iceland’s idea is to use its cheap thermal energy and hydropower to the produce hydrogen that would drive its fishing fleet, one of the world’s biggest, and cut emissions.

Other options for ship-based fuel cells, said DNV, could be methanol or biofuels, which are liquids in normal temperatures and more readily available throughout the world than LNG.

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