Bangladeshi Marine Community, Singapore

Bangladeshi Marine Community, Singapore

Hydrogen – the lightest element with weighty potential!

MNH Bhuiyan

Master Mariner with extensive sea going experience in carriage of cryogenic cargoes and shore-based experience in oil and gas industry.

Disclaimer: The article is aimed to raise a general awareness on the introduction of hydrogen as fuel. The information was collated from publicly available websites on the internet and referenced in the Bibliography. Neither the author nor any organization related in any manner with the author assumes any responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this article, or for the results obtained from the use of this information.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, about 90% of all atoms in existence, and the first in the periodic table. In 1783, this element was named ‘hydro-gen’, meaning ‘water former’ as it generates only water when burned. Reversely Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen through a basic chemical process we all know as Electrolysis. This also produces energy and can be used as fuel cell.

This knowledge is nothing new, in 1839 Sir William Robert Grove was successful to combine hydrogen and oxygen which produced electricity and water, possibly the first ever fuel cell. Poul la Cour, a Danish scientist used windmill powered Electrolysis to supply hydrogen to power lamps for Askov Folk High School between 1895 and 1902.  The efforts continued and in 1959 engineer Francis T Bacon demonstrated a five-kilowatt fuel cell that could power a welding machine. In the same year, Harry Karl Ihrig demonstrated a 20-horsepower tractor, and later in 1960 general motor built a hydrogen fuel cell powered van. Then what stopped the progressive innovation of hydrogen fuel cell? There was only one reason, the fossil fuel was a much cheaper and easily available source for energy.

The world has finally realised that the use of fossil fuel-based energy is emitting large amount of greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere, directly contributing to the rise of global temperature. Among all the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is the most released gas particularly from burning fossil fuels to satisfy the ever-increasing needs for energy. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2⁰C compared to pre-industrial levels. This is not achievable overnight and giving up fossil fuel is not easy. Most participant countries are aiming to achieve net zero by 2050. The goal of net-zero means that the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will be at the same as they are removed and/or captured at the source. This, no doubt is an ambitious aim. And hydrogen could be a suitable alternative fuel to achieve this target.

Hydrogen does not exist by itself. Today, most of the hydrogen is produced from fossil fuel, mainly natural gas, and coal, some from oil, through a process called ‘steam reformation’ which releases carbon dioxide. This obviously defies the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emission. This is known as ‘grey’ hydrogen. When the released carbon dioxide is captured at the source and stored is a safe way, then it is named as ‘blue hydrogen’. The enthusiasm is around so called ‘green hydrogen’, produced by electrolysis process using renewable energy source e.g., solar and wind power. This is much more expensive at this stage but as its market and technology evolve, it is expected to become most preferred process to produce hydrogen.

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Hydrogen acts as a chemical energy carrier, it stores three times more energy compared to the same mass of conventional petrol. Hydrogen is being used as rocket fuel in the space industry. It has the potential to replace the fuels for many segments like transportation by sea, land and even air. The ongoing research and development efforts will soon facilitate use of hydrogen as fuel, economically and efficiently.

Energy Observer is a yacht, capable of producing its own hydrogen from sea water with her 120 square meter solar panels, 2 vertical axis wind turbines, and 1 intelligent traction kite.

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The automobile industry is excitingly watching the development of hydrogen fuelled vehicles. Though hydrogen may not be the most suitable for all types of vehicles, for some it seems to be a very promising fuel alternative. One main advantage is that the system will be much lighter than a battery pack installed on an electric vehicle (EV) and can be quickly refuelled. This makes it more suitable for commercial automobiles running long distance. Such systems will use very similar motors used in the EVs. There are often some concerns raised on the safety of hydrogen fuel system specially after an accident. It is claimed that these cars are just as safe as any other existing car, the high-pressure storage systems are designed to survive the highest speed crashes without leaking. The infrastructure for refuelling supply chain is yet to be established.

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The aerospace industry is not far behind. Airbus, for example has the ambition to develop the World’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035 which will be hydrogen powered. Their ZEROe concept aircrafts will be zero-emission and have different configurations and capabilities.

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Suiso Frontier is the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier, purpose-built to carry cryogenic hydrogen, was built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan. The vessel has vacuum-insulated type C cargo tank of about 1250 m3 capacity. She loaded the first liquefied hydrogen cargo from Hasting, Australia in January 2022, for delivery to Kobe in Japan. This cargo was at temperature of about -253 ⁰C, liquified to less than 800 times of its gaseous volume.

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There are number of ongoing projects to develop such vessels for carrying liquefied hydrogen by sea. For example, Moss Maritime, with their unique experience in building of LNG containment system, has a project to design Liquefied Hydrogen containment system for a 9000 m3 vessel. Hydrogen can also be carried as chemical compounds, such as methanol, ammonia, and methyl cyclohexane. However, significant efforts are required to extract hydrogen from these compounds at the destination.

Not everyone is fully convinced, there are debates around commercial viability, infrastructure development etc. Despite all these, the innovation and technological advancement will surely continue, making it an exciting experience to witness the transformation of the world’s energy-mix, hydrogen will most likely establish its own place in this.

Note: Due to space limitation the bibliography provided by the author is not printed but available with the publisher. Which may be provided upon request.

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Capt MNH Bhuiyan (28), Master Mariner with extensive sea going experien

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