Decarbonisation – a tentative case for hydrogen?

With ice caps melting, temperatures rising, increasing incidence of droughts and floods and haphazard season cycles, it is very clear that our actions are manifested in the form of climate change. 

This situation is not restricted to one particular country. It is rife. Carbon dioxide, the main culprit, must be restrained, and decarbonisation – the process of reducing the amount of COemission resulting from human activities – is the need of the hour. 

The main sources of COemission are fuel combustion, industrial processes and the natural carbon cycle, the last of which accounts for just 0.04 % of emissions. So anthropogenic activities, i.e. those that start with human actions, are the primary causes of carbonisation and it is our responsibility to change that.

According to climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.14° F per decade since 1880 (i.e. pre industrialisation), but the rate of warming during the last 40 years (post industrialisation) has been more than twice that. This increase in global average surface temperature might seem small, but it means a significant uplift in accumulated warmth, given the tremendous size and heat capacity of our oceans. Moreover, this clearly corroborates the fact that emissions by machines and other man-made devices are the major reason for the increase in temperature. We are marching towards a catastrophe, and one which would harm mankind forever. 

Decarbonisation can save us from this. The ultimate aim is net zero carbon emission. To help achieve this, the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, seeking to restrict global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels (and aiming to limit it to 1.5°C above) by going for net carbon neutrality by 2050. As ambitious as this seems, it is nevertheless achievable. We need total focus on this vision for 2050, in order to save the environment and possibly mankind, too. 

The maritime industry can significantly influence this, as shipping accounts for nearly one billion tons of COemission per year. 

This is due to burning fossil fuels to generate power, which is inextricably intertwined with COemission. Thus the shipping industry is under pressure to decarbonise, especially as it is expanding with increasing global demand, and emissions are expected to increase by at least 50% in the near future. Decarbonising shipping will obviously align with the goals of the Paris Agreement, and certainly the industry is getting actively engaged in the process. Maersk’s announcement that it intends to make its operations carbon free by 2050 has spurred others – who may have been lagging behind – to act. 

Decarbonisation in the maritime industry can be greatly helped by switching to alternative and renewable sources of energy. 

The options available focus to some extent on ammonia, but also hydrogen. Although advantageous compared to many other fuel alternatives (due to the relative ease of retrofitting existing ships with hydrogen fuel cells) an excessive carbon footprint will still be created if hydrogen is extracted conventionally i.e. using fossil fuels. We need to focus on what is known as green hydrogen, which is produced through electrolysis and is virtually carbon free. 

Going a step further and making the entire process of extraction (as well as the use) of the hydrogen gas carbon neutral, we could even power the electrolysis by a renewable source of energy, and the fact that there is an existing means, and also market, for producing green hydrogen makes it an even stronger candidate in aid of zero carbon emission by 2050. 

Any discussion about using hydrogen as a marine fuel, though, would be incomplete without considering safety. The transportation and storage of hydrogen needs extensive precautions, as it is highly inflammable. 

Another disadvantage is that it has less energy density per unit of volume, so will take up more space on cargo ships than, say, LNG would. 

This could be addressed by making minor modifications to fuel capacity, or, more creatively, planning voyages so there is regular access to bunkering stations. The latter solution would remove the need to carry a huge volume of fuel, but presently requires greatly improved infrastructure, while the former needs more research in order to make it a sustainable reality. 

Another challenge is the presently high cost of producing hydrogen. 

But that could be solved by the laws of economics. Wider use, and so greater market demand, would lead to more sources and thus availability at progressively lower rates. 

Further research on the sustainability of using hydrogen to power vessels is likely to repay the investment, and shipping companies might do well to support projects like the MarHySafe joint development project, which aims to address the challenges of hydrogen operations, and the related issues of safety and regulation. Projects like this focus on making sure that we can modify vessels and fine-tune them so they can be powered by hydrogen.

To make a carbon neutral world a reality in 2050, effort is needed from every single sector. The maritime industry is no exception, and many in it are heavily involved. For example, the Synergy Group is making continuous efforts, not just by investing in projects but also by specifically training crew, all in aid of a carbon free, clean and safe environment.  Instead of seeing renewable energy as a supplementary source, let us make it our primary one, and hope that our efforts towards a sustainable world can be amply rewarded. To achieve our vision for 2050, if used judiciously hydrogen fuel could prove to be a godsend.

Deck Cadet Ankit Bahadur Chhetri – “DEE4 CEDAR”