ABB in Position for Shipping’s Low Carbon Future

Updated 5 Sep 2019

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There is no disguising the challenges to be overcome if IMO’s greenhouse gas target for 2050 is to be reached, but Jostein Bogen, product manager for energy storage and fuel cells at ABB Marine & Ports, explains that some significant building blocks are already in place.

With one year to go before the IMO 2020 fuel Sulphur content cap comes into force, owners are focusing on the practicalities of using lower Sulphur fuels or exhaust gas scrubbers. However, meeting immediate requirements should leave them under no illusion: the IMO’s target to (at least) halve ship CO2 emissions by 2050 presents a challenge of a completely different order.

The April 2018 Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 72) meeting therefore sets an industry responsible for transporting 90 percent of global freight a target to reboot its energy sources in a timeframe lasting not much more than an average ship’s lifetime.

Given the level of pain felt as shipping has inched towards its 2020 fuel Sulphur content cap, the ambition is certainly daunting. However, battery power is establishing itself as a real force for change in one important part of the shipping market. In November, the largest emission-free ferries in the world officially went into service, after the conversion from diesel to all-electric power of the ForSea vessels Tycho Brahe and Aurora. The vessels are fitted with a 4160 kWh battery to propel them on the 4km crossing between Helsingborg, Sweden and Helsingør, Denmark.

ABB supplied the battery racks, energy storage control systems and the Onboard DC Grid™ power distribution technology, which can exploit top-up battery power so that generator sets can run at variable speeds, or for peak load shaving, thus maximising load efficiency and optimising fuel consumption. For these ferries, ABB has also provided shore-side charging stations using an industrial robot to optimize the connection time and maximize the charging period, leveraging 3D laser scanning and wireless communication between ship and shore.

In line with ABB Marine & Ports’ “Electric. Digital. Connected.” strategy, Onboard DC Grid™ is agnostic with respect to the plant being managed. The solution can be used for vessels running on batteries, fuel cells, or as fuel cell/battery hybrids.

Solutions of this type are therefore just as critical for marine fuel cell technology, which is also maturing quickly. Here, again, ABB has been taking a lead, with a focus on scaling up both the onboard systems and the critical infrastructure that will be needed to supply hydrogen and other carbon neutral fuels.

In mid-2018, ABB signed and MoU with Ballard Power Systems covering the development of a next-generation fuel cell power system for sustainable marine e-mobility. The partners plan to leverage existing kilowatt-scale fuel cell technologies and optimize them to create a pioneering megawatt-scale solution suitable for powering larger ships, with an electrical generating capacity of 3MW (4000 HP). The new system is envisaged as fitting within a single module no bigger in size than a traditional marine engine running on fossil fuels.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells convert the chemical energy from hydrogen into electricity through an electrochemical reaction. They involve no combustion, converting fuel directly to electricity, heat and clean water. With the use of renewables to produce the hydrogen, the entire energy chain could be clean. PEM fuel cells operate at lower temperatures than their solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) counterparts, as well as being lighter and more compact.

ABB’s recent agreement with SINTEF Ocean adds another dimension to its fuel cell work by seeking to test the viability of fuel cells as an energy source for main ship propulsion. The SINTEF laboratory in Trondheim has been a key research resource for ABB, helping to bring its most advanced maritime technologies to market, including ABB Onboard DC Grid™.

The first objective of this latest research is to ‘find the unknowns’ of the marine fuel cell and cope with them in a controlled environment, rather than risking surprises on board ship. However, there should be no doubt that the ultimate goal is to provide the answers required for fuel cell technology to be delivered at the scale needed to drive commercial and passenger ships through the water as a direct competitor to fossil fuels. The testing methodology will use two 30kW fuel cells, set up to model the operation and control of a complete marine power system in a megawatt-scale propulsion plant.

These trials will explore more than the technicalities of scaling-up and optimized fuel cell/battery combinations alone. SINTEF is contributing the hydrogen supply and infrastructure, while having a test lab gives ABB and SINTEF Ocean the opportunity to increase in-house competence for integration, control and safety of fuel cell technology in marine applications.

Another key objective will be establishing how to enhance the control of fuel cell plant in combination with energy storage, and how to optimize efficiency, reliability and the lifetime of fuel cell stacks. ABB and SINTEF will seek decisive and practical solutions to develop fuel cell technology for main propulsion, focusing not only on fuel flow and fuel handling. ABB software will work with SINTEF Ocean’s vessel simulator to model diesel/battery/fuel cell combinations and emulate different loads/operational profiles. Again, battery power will be deployed for peak shaving to optimise fuel cell performance, in a manner comparable to its supplementary role to optimise diesel plant performance.

Clearly, some of the building blocks that will help shipping meet its 2050 GHG target are being put in place. It may also be worth noting that, in another context, recent experience shows that resistance to environmental imperatives can quickly be undermined. Many believed that offshore wind power would never be viable without subsidy: today it is often cheaper than coal or gas.

If there is no point in disguising the challenges that stand between shipping and the IMO’s GHG target for 2050, therefore, it is useful to assess how best they may be addressed. As hinted above, many are technical and seek technical solutions. However, others involve a variety of stakeholders: the success of the PEM fuel cell will rely on creating a hydrogen supply chain, as well as viable hydrogen storage solutions on board. Again, The IGC Code requires a significant overhaul to accommodate fuel cells on ships.

ABB believes that collective action will be required to overcome these wider challenges. It also believes that IMO itself is the best forum to explore collective action. An example of this view is ABB’s founding member status of the Global Industry Alliance (GIA), established on June 29, 2018 at IMO headquarters to support transitioning shipping towards its low carbon future. GIA includes owners, operators, class societies, engine and other technology suppliers, big data providers and oil companies. It seeks to overcome common barriers to energy efficiency through innovation.

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