Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hydrogen Powered Ship.

Iceland is about to launch its first hydrogen-powered ship ... well, at least the lights on it are powered by hydrogen. Of all nations, Iceland is probably the best provided-for in terms of sustainable energy, since it sits on the north Atlantic Ridge, and can draw ample geothermal energy from the molten lava that flows underneath it. Natural demonstrations of this source of power are the geysers, which respond to steam-pressure in rock-formations by erupting spectacularly at regular intervals. The ship is called the "Elding" which is the Icelandic word for "Lightning" and is set to be converted as the world's first hydrogen-powered sea-vessel. In the first instance, it is just the lights that will run on hydrogen "fuel", but it is taken as a gesture of commitment to Iceland's intentions to transform the nation to a hydrogen economy.

Presently, Iceland earns 70% of its (GDP) money from fishing, using a fleet that is fueled almost entirely by imported oil. If it could play its favourable geological hand to convert geothermal energy into hydrogen by electrolysing water, that would confer security of fuel-supply to the nation. However, I am not entirely sure how the hydrogen might be used overall - yes, fuel cells are the obvious means, or it could simply be burned in internal combustion engines. However, the latter loses the advantage usually claimed for hydrogen, that PEM fuel cells give about two or three times the efficiency in terms of well-to-miles compared with hydrocarbon fuels, calorie for calorie. Whether the technology can be adapted for ships remains to be seen, and it is claimed that about one tonne of hydrogen will need to be carried for a 4 - 5 day voyage.

The hydrogen-powered lights will allow tourists a closer look at the whales, since the ship can be made soundless. Normally, the noise of a ship's engines frightens the whales off, but by cutting the engines at the point of view, and eliminating the engine that is normally used to run the lights, which will instead be powered by a hydrogen/fuel cell, the mammals should not be alarmed, and will probably find the alien vessel a curiosity. The cost of a trip on the Elding is 43 Euros (about 30 quid or sixty bucks). The trippers should also be able to hear the whales swim and blow water more clearly without the rumble of an auxiliary engine in the bowels of the ship.

Iceland, with its population of 300,000, has announced an intention to convert its entire economy to hydrogen by 2050, which is a considerable undertaking, although nothing compared to switching-over a country the size of the UK, with 60 million people in it. Two-thirds of the world's electricity is made from non-renewable, mainly fossil, resources such as coal and gas, while two-thirds of the electricity used in Iceland is made from renewable resources, since it is well-supplied by rivers and waterfalls and the geothermal energy I have already alluded to.

There is a hydrogen filling station in Reykjavik, originally intended to fuel three buses, but was opened to the public in November of 2007, coinciding with the import of 10 specially adapted Toyota Priuses that run on hydrogen. NB, they BURN hydrogen in internal combustion (IC) engines instead of petrol, and are not fuel cell driven vehicles. The station will also provide hydrogen to run the ship, presumably also with an IC engine, rather than an array of fuel cells? Still, if the Icelanders can get the hydrogen effectively for nothing, why not use it thus, even if the efficiency is reduced from the PEM limit to that of the thermodynamic Carnot Cycle.

The chief of Icelandic New Energy, Jon Bjorn Skulason, predicts that by 2030 - 2035 most of Iceland's vehicles will run on hydrogen fuel. Personally, I am doubtful. There are many problems to be solved attendant to using hydrogen as a "fuel": making it in the first place - in Reykjavik by in situ electrolysis of water at the filling station; and storing it in sufficient quantities in vehicles that they don't need to refuel every 10 miles or so. For example, one tonne of hydrogen gas for the Elding, at atmospheric pressure would occupy 12,500 m^3, but compressed at a pressure of 5,000 psi (pounds on the square inch), this is reduced to 12,500 x 15/5,000 = 37.5 m^3. That's about the size of a room in an average terrace house. In liquid form (at -253 degrees C) one tonne of hydrogen would occupy a little more than one third of that, or 13.7 m^3, but it takes about 30 - 40% of the energy the gas can deliver to liquefy it. In comparison, high compression consumes around 20% of the energy "stored" in the hydrogen itself.

On a world scale, implementing the engineering to make and handle hydrogen would be staggering and is unlikely to be done within 10 years, by when world oil supplies will have begun to dwindle substantially. Hydrogen is not going to come in time to save the world from the impending energy-crunch, particularly for transportation fuel, but for its own needs, maybe Iceland will do it. We shall see.

Related Reading.


Anonymous said...

My metier, when I was gainfully employed, was ships, I know a bit about them.
From reports on BMW’s research into H2 cars and it seems that the storage problem of getting lots of gas into a very small space, such as exists even on the largest cars, and getting it out again in a form suitable for use as a fuel, is, by the very nature of things, difficult, energy profligate and complicates matters enormously. Most H2 applications face the same problem, so there is a tendency to think always of the need to compress the gas to very high pressures.
This is not necessarily the case and we must compare horses for courses. Cars (and indeed planes and trains) and ships are two very different courses indeed.
The reason is that ships are neither volume nor weight constrained, not since Brunel.
So it might be reasonable, in ships, to store H2 at low pressure and larg(ish) volumes (although smallish, proportionately, for ships) which might reduce the problems encountered.
In view of Iceland’s unique energy situation, and its geographical situation, perhaps it might be possible for their people to develop a “species” of H2 powered ships, destined for the North Atlantic trade only, which happens to be one of the world’s biggest trade routes.
So in this scenario, H2 powered ships, emitting zero CO2 would criss-cross the North Atlantic, via Iceland, where they would refuel for each half of the voyage. In doing so, they would trade a small increase in voyage mileage for a huge decrease on CO2 emissions.
Obviously, no one has any idea of the costs of such a venture, compared with normal fuel oil costs, but there must be a point where the lines cross (fuel oil/H2) and it might take a brave ship-owner to lead the way, perhaps a Branagh type rather than your typical shipowner.
With regard to the safety of H2, we are encouraged by Hollywood, the Hindenburg films, and various “exagerationists” (1) to believe that H2 is intrinsically not-safe. In fact it is no more dangerous than any other combustible material, which of course, in our own normal life, in our own normal experience, when properly contained, is safe. Consider petrol in cars, butane in bottles, oxygen in bottles, acetylene in bottles (actually acetylene is difficult, yet it still safe in normal use) and so on. With this in mind, about 20 years ago the Shell Oil Company, in their unique way, decided to test the commonly accepted belief that LPG gases (which are principally H2) exploded when suddenly let loose from an enclosed space. The question was "..would the sudden expansion of the gas cause massive freezing or would it ignite into the “classical” Hollywood fireball, before it froze.."
So the lads of “Joe Shell” set up an experiment in the North Sea, in which a huge amount of LPG was released suddenly, and ignited. Of course a section of the sea was allocated for the experiment and due Notices to Mariners issued, so there were no safety third-party problems.
What happened when the huge cloud of LPG gas, mostly H2, released onto the North Sea, was ignited? Was the gas too cold, by virtue of its expansion, to explode, or did it turn into an uncontrollable fireball?
Neither of these things happened. All that happened was that at the point of ignition the gas started burning, and the flame front spread out over the surface of the gas, according to O2 availability. Eventually all of the gas was on fire, on the surface, and the combustion stabilised according to the surface of the fuel. There was never an explosion. The report of this experiment appeared in (I think) either the IMARE or the RINA proceedings, or possibly in the Journal of Commerce. It is quite an important experiment and shouldn’t be forgotten.
Something similar appears to be happening when one watches the Hindenburg films attentively, for this particular aspect of the combustion. There is no explosion, just fire.
I have been responsible for LPG tankers, trading in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq/Iran war. One of my ships was strafed by an aircraft and the cargo tanks pierced by bullets. The Master & Chief Engineer both told me that there was no explosion, a huge jet of flame appeared at each of the perforations in the tanks (there were many of them) and the flame burnt stably on the tank surface. The ship’s crew where able to extinguish the flame jets, one by one, using high pressure sea-water hoses.
The point of all of this is that H2, properly handled, is a safe fuel, and with well designed equipment, can be safely used in transport.

(1) I claim a new word..

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

That's a very interesting comment, Peter! I agree. Iceland is probably in a unique situation, and it might work there to install a H2 economy. I like the idea of using a free and carbon-free fuel to power ships across the Atlantic.

I am guessing that the fuel will be burned in IC engines rather than used via fuel-cells. I saw something on the news recently about a hydrogen-powered car that has broken some speed-record, but that was IC engine-based too.

Handling liquid hydrogen would be troublesome because it boils at -253 degrees C. I have handled gaseous H2 in my former days as a research chemist. Yes, it was fine, even in the days when we used to "crack" the cylinders, by opening the valve carefully from 2,000 psi to atmospheric pressure (to blow out any dirt that might clog the cylinder valve when it was attached), just so long as nobody was smoking and the gas was allowed to disperse.

I accept your point about being less space-restricted on board a ship than a car for example.

My main point about hydrogen is that installing an entirely new infrastructure to produce and handle it will be quite an undertaking which I doubt can be accomplished before we begin to run short of oil to fuel transport. Hence, I envisage a move to more localised societies that rely less on extensive transportation and more on local farms etc.

For H2 to be used in the wider world, it will be necessary to develop fuel cells that don't use platinum, since Pt is a rare metal and at present rates of extraction perhaps just a few million FC cars each year could be produced, in the face of about780 million road vehicles, which would also suggest a considerable fall in world transport - declining oil supplies and a relatively small number of FC's.

Iceland, however, might fare better, especially if they can make plenty of H2 and use it as a straight IC fuel.


Anonymous said...

I personally have no experience with any fuel nor do I understand much of chemistry. I do work in the cruise industry and I tend to agree that we are not neccessarily limited by space. My question is why would we not be able to produce Hydrogen as we go? After all we do sail on water.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Rolf,

in principle, hydrogen can be made on board a vessel, e.g. the yacht, described at:

However, this uses the propeller's rotation to generate electricity (500 W)and hence hydrogen. It is quite a complex procedure though.

If hydrogen is to be produced on-board then the energy to make it, say by water electrolysis, has to come from somewhere; most likely from the fossil fuel used to drive the engines. Overall, the procedure might be less efficient than just using the fuel in the engines.

Hydrogen is not a primary fuel, and this is the problem, it must be made somehow and that costs energy from other e.g. fossil sources.

I hope this is helpful.



Anonymous said...

I was wondering...

From a technical point of view, would it be feasible to use hydrogen as the main source of power on a structure (oil rig, ...) that is not destined to move. If the structure would have sufficient space to have solar and wind energy to cover the running energy needs, while the surplus is stored in the form of hydrogen. Would that be possible?

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

In principle yes it would. It depends on the exact energy requirements and how the hydrogen would be made and stored. It also depends on how the hydrogen would be "burnt", e.g. in fuel cells or internal combustion engines.

Hydrogen is often spoken of as a possible energy carrier for solar and wind energy, so that when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, hydrogen formed during the generating hours, can be used to make energy, thus ensuring a constant supply.

You would need to so some detailed sums regarding energy consumption and efficiencies/losses etc. to get some idea of the scale of the technology needed for the job.



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