Fuel Cell Technologies and Applications for Deep-Sea Shipping

Exploring the Role of Fuel Cells in Shipping Decarbonization

Decarbonizing the shipping industry is a complex challenge. Given this complexity, it is crucial to thoroughly consider and assess all potential solutions. While alternative fuels are a major focus of research, this report highlights fuel cells as a promising alternative fuel conversion technology for the shipping industry.

Making fuel cells a viable part of shipping decarbonization efforts requires both accelerated technological development and increased awareness among stakeholders in the maritime value chain. This report aims to provide an unbiased update on the status of fuel cell technologies from a maritime perspective, helping ship owners and charterers make informed decisions about incorporating fuel cells into their short-, medium-, and long-term strategies.

The report begins by introducing fuel cells and describing the main technologies relevant to shipping (Sections 1–2). It then analyzes the potential integration of these technologies with various ship types and alternative marine fuels (Sections 3-5). The analysis covers energy demand, greenhouse gas emissions, fuel costs, capital expenditure, total cost of ownership, and the physical integration of fuel cell technology. It also considers the potential impact of a theoretical carbon tax on the business case for fuel cells in shipping. Finally, the report outlines conclusions and possible avenues for future research (Section 6), though safety implications were beyond the scope of this project.

What is a fuel cell?

Unlike internal combustion engines, which convert chemical energy through combustion into mechanical motion, fuel cells convert chemical energy through electrochemical reactions into electricity. Similar to batteries, fuel cells use a flow of fuel and oxygen to continuously produce electricity as long as fuel is supplied. A fuel cell typically consists of two electrodes (anode and cathode) and an electrolyte. When fuel and oxygen are supplied, a chemical reaction at the anode generates direct current electricity, along with heat and water. Several fuel cell technologies exist or are in development, each using different materials and fuels. While some are common in other industries, shipping applications remain limited. For example, fuel cells have been used in the space industry since the 1960s and more recently for material handling and backup power generation on land. However, the first marine fuel cell type approval was only issued in 2022.

Benefits of fuel cells

Despite the variety of fuel cell technologies, their common advantage is the efficient conversion of chemical energy to electricity compared to combustion-based processes. They also reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrous oxide (N2O), and particulate matter. Some fuel cells can use a wide range of alternative fuels. Additionally, fuel cell systems have fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines, simplifying design and maintenance.

About this project

The project was a collaboration between the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping (MMMCZCS) and strategic partners including Stolt Tankers, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Tsuneishi Shipbuilding, Siemens Energy, Seaspan Corporation, ABB, American Bureau of Shipping, Royal Caribbean Group, Maersk, NYK Line, TotalEnergies, and Alfa Laval. Technology suppliers AFC Energy, Ballard Power Systems, Bloom Energy, Corvus Energy, Elcogen, Freudenberg, PowerCell Group, and RIX Industries also contributed.

Key takeaways

Given the differences between fuel cells and internal combustion engines, it is unrealistic to expect fuel cells to entirely replace internal combustion engines onboard ships in the near future, even with technological maturity. High initial costs and required adjustments to ships’ engine-room design and operating procedures are significant barriers.

Instead, it is more likely that different technologies will coexist. Ship owners could combine fuel cells and internal combustion engines to leverage the advantages of each system. This approach allows the industry to benefit from fuel cells’ environmental performance while becoming familiar with the technology and gradually increasing investments as it becomes more affordable.

Our investigation focused on the role of fuel cells in auxiliary power rather than propulsion. Auxiliary power generation, which has lower maximum loads and costs compared to main engines, represents a good starting point for introducing fuel cell technologies.

To assess the feasibility of such configurations on deep-sea ships, we mapped the fuel cell technologies currently being developed for maritime applications, with input from technology suppliers. We analyzed the potential for fuel cells’ integration on bulk carriers, tankers, and container ships, which are responsible for the largest bulk of shipping emissions. Using real-world operational data, we estimated the impact of fuel cells on energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, fuel and equipment costs, and ship design from 2025 to 2040.

Our analysis shows that fuel cells could reduce both onboard fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions without requiring significant design modifications. However, the high costs of alternative fuels and fuel cells currently limit their competitiveness in the short and medium term. Long-term financial outlooks for fuel cells improve but depend on the implementation of a carbon tax or similar mechanism.

In summary, fuel cells could significantly contribute to shipping’s decarbonization if certain conditions are met. Stakeholders can use this report for guidance in adopting fuel cell technology. Shipowners may improve their assets’ environmental profiles by phasing in fuel cells, while technology providers can identify optimal commercial combinations of fuel cell technologies and alternative fuels. Policymakers can use this report to understand the requirements for enabling fuel cells to contribute to a zero-carbon transition in shipping. This report leverages expert interviews and analysis to enhance industry awareness and support the adoption of fuel cell technology for decarbonizing shipping.

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