* Prototype vessels developed in Asia and Europe
* Key issue: Keeping liquid hydrogen at -253 C
* Greener fuel could quicken lower-carbon economy
* Similar to LNG shipping challenges decades ago
* But costly, no guarantee of wide hydrogen usage
LONDON, May 12 (Reuters) - Hydrogen is touted as an
inevitable green fuel of the future. Tell that to the people
who'll have to ship it across the globe at hyper-cold
temperatures close to those in outer space.
Yet that is exactly what designers are attempting to do.
In the biggest technological challenge for merchant shipping
in decades, companies are beginning to develop a new generation
of vessels that can deliver hydrogen to heavy industry, betting
plants worldwide will convert to the fuel and propel the
transition to a lower-carbon economy.
There are at least three projects developing pilot ships
that will be ready to test transporting the fuel in Europe and
Asia within the next three years, the companies involved told
The major challenge is to keep the hydrogen chilled at minus
253 degrees Celsius - only 20 degrees above absolute zero, the
coldest possible temperature - so it stays in liquid form, while
avoiding the risk that parts of a vessel could crack.
That's almost 100 degrees Celsius colder than temperatures
needed to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), which required
its own shipping revolution about 60 years ago.
Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries has already built
the world's first ship to transport hydrogen, Suiso Frontier. It
told Reuters the prototype vessel was undergoing sea trials,
with a demonstration maiden voyage of some 9,000 km from
Australia to Japan expected in coming months.
"There is the next phase of the project already running to
build a commercial-scale hydrogen carrier by the mid-2020s, with
an aim to go commercial in 2030," said Motohiko Nishimura,
Kawasaki's vice executive officer.
The 1,250 cubic-metre tank to hold the hydrogen is
double-shelled and vacuum-insulated to help maintain the
Kawasaki's prototype, a relatively modest 116 metres long
and 8,000 gross tonnes, will run on diesel on its maiden voyage
but the company aims to use hydrogen to power future, larger
commercial vessels, Nishimura said.
In South Korea, one of the world's major shipbuilding hubs,
another project is in the works.
Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering is the
first company in the country working on building a commercial
liquefied hydrogen carrier, a company spokesperson said.
To tackle the hyper-cold challenge, the company said it was
working with a steelmaker to develop high-strength steel and new
welding technology, along with enhanced insulation, to contain
the hydrogen and mitigate the risks of pipes or tanks cracking.
On the other side of the world, in Norway, efforts are also
underway to build a hydrogen supply chain on the west coast of
the country, with one group looking to pilot a test ship that
could transport hydrogen to planned filling stations, which
would be able to service ships as well as trucks and buses.
Norwegian shipping company Wilhelmsen Group is working on
the latter project with partners to build a "roll-on/roll-off"
ship that will be able to transport liquid hydrogen by way of
containers or trailers that are driven onboard, said Per
Brinchmann, the company's vice president, special projects.
The ship is expected to be operational in the first half of
2024, he added.
"We believe once we have this demonstration vessel
operational the intention will be to build up bunkering hubs on
the west coast (of Norway)," Brinchmann said, referring to the
Other companies are exploring a different route to avoid the
cold conundrum and what may happen when hydrogen atoms interact
Canada's Ballard Power Systems and Australia's Global Energy
Ventures, for example, are working together to develop a ship to
transport compressed hydrogen in gas form.
"The earliest timeframe would be 2025/26," said Nicolas
Pocard, vice president marketing and strategic partnerships with
The advantage of this gas approach is that it does not
require any extreme temperatures. But the downside is that less
hydrogen can be transported in a cargo than liquid hydrogen,
which is why some of the early movers are opting for the latter.
Wilhelmsen's Brinchmann said that a 40-foot container would
carry about 800-1,000 kg of pressurized hydrogen gas, but up to
3,000 kg of liquid hydrogen.
COMPLEX AND COSTLY
Such endeavours are far from risk free.
They are expensive, for a start; none of the companies would
comment on the cost of their vessels, though three industry
specialists told Reuters that such ships would cost more than
vessels carrying LNG, which can run to $50-$240 million each
depending on size.
"The cost of a vessel transporting hydrogen will mainly be
driven by the cost of the storage system. Storing liquid
hydrogen could be very expensive because of its complexity,"
Carlo Raucci, marine decarbonisation consultant with ship
certifier LR, added separately.
The pilot projects, which are still in experimental stages,
must overcome these technical challenges, and also rely on
hydrogen catching on as a widely used fuel in coming years.
None of this is certain, though the state support being
thrown behind this cleaner-burning fuel suggests it does have a
future in the global energy mix.
More than 30 countries, including several in Europe such as
France and Germany as well the likes of South Korea and
Australia, have released hydrogen rollout plans.
Total planned investments could reach over $300 billion
through to 2030 if hundreds of projects using the fuel come to
fruition, according to a recent report by the Hydrogen Council
association and consultants McKinsey.
The role of shipping would be important to unlocking the
potential to convert industries such as steel and cement to
Those two heavy-industry sectors alone are estimated to
produce over 10% of global CO2 emissions, and overcoming their
need for fossil fuels is one of the key challenges of the global
transition to a lower-carbon economy.
FASTER THAN LNG?
Tiago Braz, VP energy with Norwegian marine technology
developer Hoglund, said the company was working with steel
specialists and tank designers on engineering a ship cargo
system that can be used for transporting liquid hydrogen.
"We are at the early stages with hydrogen carriers. But
unlike when LNG was first rolled out, the industry is more
flexible to change," Braz said.
"It should be a faster transition," he added.
Specialists say the development of LNG took decades before
it was fully rolled out, partly due to the infrastructure and
ships required and the few companies willing to invest
Companies active in wider shipping markets are also looking
at the possibility of diversifying into transporting hydrogen in
Paul Wogan, chief executive of GasLog Partners
which is a major player in LNG shipping, said it was
"open-minded" about moving into hydrogen, while oil tanker owner
Euronav said it was examining future energy
"If that energy is hydrogen tomorrow, we would certainly
like to play a role in the emerging industry," Euronav's CEO
Hugo De Stoop said.
Others such as leading ship-management company Maersk
Tankers said they would be open to managing hydrogen shipping
Johan Petter Tutturen, business director for gas carriers
with ship certifier DNV Maritime, said his company was involved
in concept studies for the transport of hydrogen in bulk at sea.
"It'll be some years before these projects come to fruition,
but if hydrogen is to be a part of the future fuel mix then we
have to begin exploring all possibilities now."
(Additional reporting by Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo, Heekyong Yang
and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Veronica Brown and Pravin