Q&A: using fuel cell technology to decrease shipping emissions

Ilaria Grasso Macola 1 February 2021 (Last Updated February 11th, 2021 14:59)

The shipping industry is investing to meet the International Maritime Organization’s 2050 decarbonisation goals. We speak to Swedish multinational Alfa Laval about how solid oxide fuel cell technology could create a greener energy source for ships.

Q&A: using fuel cell technology to decrease shipping emissions
Alfa Laval has launched a research project that aims to accelerate the development of solid oxide fuel cell technology. Credit: Maritime Filming UK.

Swedish technology provider Alfa Laval has launched a research project that aims to accelerate the development of solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology, using it to produce green fuel for the shipping industry.

Alongside partners including the Technical University of Denmark and the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon, Alfa Laval will spearhead the development of the SOFC4Maritime project, which used green fuels such as ammonia, hydrogen and bio-methane to produce power on board vessels.

The use of SOFC technology – which combines fuel and an oxidant via an ionic electrolyte to produce electricity – could have significant environmental benefits and help the industry to meet the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) 2050 targets, which aim to reduce vessel-related greenhouse gas emissions by 50%.

According to a study by Imperial College London and others, SOFC is the most “optimal solution for reducing greenhouse gas emission using liquified natural gas”, as it could reduce ships’ CO2 emissions by 34%.

“Addressing shipping’s environmental challenges – and climate change in particular – will require a diverse range of strong technologies,” commented Alfa Laval marine division president Sameer Kalra. “By partnering with fellow marine industry experts, we can investigate the possibilities and bring them to fruition in time to make a difference.”

Alfa Laval boiler systems vice-president Lars Skytte Jørgensen explains how the project came about and how it will help the global shipping industry in its effort to become net-zero.

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): When did the SOFC4Maritime project come about and what was the rationale behind it?

Lars Skytte Jørgensen (LSJ): Alfa Laval has an ongoing dialogue with many of the major players in the marine industry, [but] the specific partner discussions that led to SOFC4Maritime began last year.

The need to reduce carbon footprint is widely recognised, both inside and outside the marine industry. This technology will not be the only solution, of course, but it will be one key element in reducing the marine industry’s climate impact.

The urgency is underlined by legislation and other initiatives driving the marine industry in this direction, such as the IMO’s clear targets for 2030 and 2050, and the Energy Efficiency Design Index ambition level, [which] will increase from 2025.

IGM: Why did Alfa Laval decide to join the project?

LSJ: This is not an initiative Alfa Laval joined, but rather an initiative we helped to shape. We’ve had an active role from the earliest discussions, alongside the other partners in SOFC4Maritime.

As for enabling widespread efficiency on board and reducing vessels’ environmental impact, these are goals that Alfa Laval has been pursuing for many decades.

IGM: In practice, how does the project work?

LSJ: Now that the project has been formalised under the auspices of the Energy Technology Development and Demonstration Programme (EUDP) [a programme instituted by the Danish Energy Agency to support companies that want to develop new energy technologies], there are clear EUDP guidelines that will govern its structure and progress.

Alfa Laval will have a deep and coordinating role as head of the project, and naturally we will also contribute with our own technology, extensive onboard experience and research and development muscle.

IGM: What are the benefits of using green fuels for power production on board vessels compared to more traditional fuels?

LSJ: There could be a range of benefits in green fuels, including operational benefits we don’t yet foresee.

Here, however, the urgent target is the reduction of the marine industry’s climate impact. We want to secure energy sources on board that radically limit carbon-based emissions, and today’s fuels can’t take us far enough.

Of course, the fuel cells themselves must be produced with green fuel sources if they’re going have the desired climate benefit.

IGM: How will the project help the global shipping industry achieve the IMO’s environmental targets?

LSJ: When the project is successfully completed, we will have an efficient, green and marine-adapted fuel cell technology that can make a major contribution to meeting 2050 goals. What will remain is the work of scaling it up in subsequent projects.

Once the technology is feasible, we have to make it marketable, but we believe that both goals are firmly within reach.