Fuel cells will be the next big technological step forward as shipping’s ability to source lower-carbon fuels moves from LNG to hydrogen-based zero-emission fuels, says Shell Shipping & Maritime.

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“The next technology we see as a game changer is fuel cells,” Carl Henrickson, Shell Shipping & Maritime general manager of technology, innovation and digitalisation, told TradeWinds in an interview.

Shell is involved in two major fuel cell pilot projects getting underway.

The aim is to use hydrogen-based fuels with fuel cells but as they are largely fuel agnostic Shell Shipping is proof-testing them now with LNG, Henrickson said.

“LNG is available today in 96 ports offering a 23% well-to-wake improvement in greenhouse gas emissions and therefore we should do something with that,” he added.

Solid oxide fuel cells with an output of 600 kW will be tested in the auxiliary power system of one of Shell’s 174,000-cbm LNG carrier newbuildings going into operation from 2025.

The project involves Hyundai Heavy Industries Holdings’ Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering, Doosan Fuel Cell, its fuel cell specialist subsidiary HyAxiom, classification society DNV and JP Morgan.

The second project is larger, involving a consortium to build a 2.4-MW proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell system that will be retrofitted to an existing 18,600-dwt chemical tanker in 2024.

Carl Henrickson is general manager of shipping and maritime technology, innovation and digitalisation at Shell. Photo: Shell

The three-year project, involving TECO 2030, Hy-Ekotank, Ektank and DNV as well as Shell, recently gained a €5m ($5.3m) grant from the European Union.

“[It] is one of the largest marine fuel cell projects in the world that I am aware of,” said Tore Enger, group chief executive of Teco 2030. His company is building Europe’s first giga-scale production facility for hydrogen PEM fuel cells in Narvik, Norway.

A 4,000-kg hydrogen storage system will be fitted, and six 400-kW fuel cell modules placed in an on-board container, to demonstrate how the auxiliary power system can cause zero emissions while the ship is at port and cut GHG emissions at sea. Shell will purchase the fuel cell system and provide the renewable hydrogen to power it.

Hydrogen’s low energy density is a drawback in internal combustion engines, but Henrickson believes it has potential for main propulsion in fuel cells.

“Fuel cells are not just about auxiliary power, but how do you scale them for propulsion? Today the cost of deploying enough fuel cells in that range is out of touch but unless we do the research and development work, we will not be able to prove that they can be a viable solution,” he said.

He sees full-scale commercial and affordable hydrogen-based fuel cell propulsion systems potentially available by the mid-2030s.