Can Fuel Cells Power Cargo Ships?
Fuel cells have so far failed to gain traction on the road as a clean way to power cars. Bloom Energy Corp. is betting they’ll work better at sea.
The fuel cell maker will collaborate with Samsung Heavy Industries, one of the world’s largest shipbuilders, to develop cargo ships powered by the cells, which use an electrochemical reaction to generate electricity. Cargo ships typically burn heavy fuel oil, and the International Maritime Organization has mandated rules requiring lower emissions at sea starting next year.
“There’s clearly a sense of urgency for ship manufacturers to reduce emissions,” said Preeti Pande, Bloom’s vice president of strategic market development, in an interview. “We can make a dent in the targets the shipping industry has to meet. We can do that today.”
Bloom’s fuel cells — typically used to power buildings and data centers — run on natural gas, although they can be configured to use hydrogen instead. When running on gas, they produce far fewer greenhouse emissions than would burning the fuel in an engine.
They also generate none of the soot and smog-forming pollutants that have long fouled the air around ports.
Other companies are exploring using fuel cells on boats, although work remains in early stages. Ferries powered by hydrogen fuel cells are being developed in Norway and the San Francisco Bay Area. Last year, industrial technology company ABB announced an effort with a Norwegian research institution to study fuel cell applications for commercial and passenger vessels.
The IMO, a United Nations agency that oversees shipping pollution and safety, has called on the industry to cut its annual greenhouse gas emissions at least 50% by 2050. Bloom and Samsung estimate that powering a cargo ship with fuel cells, fed by natural gas stored onboard, could slash emissions 45%. Switching to hydrogen would virtually eliminate them.
While fuel-cell cars haven’t caught on with American drivers, they could be more appropriate for cargo ships. Their power needs — for propulsion as well as on-board electricity — are as much as 100 megawatts by Bloom’s estimate. They have space for its fuel cells, which in Bloom’s typical installations are far too bulky for cars.
And the cells wouldn’t all need to be put in the same place, such as an engine room, Pande said. A 2017 report from Sandia National Laboratories found no practical limitations to using fuel cells in most types of boats, including large cargo ships.