Ammonia as a Renewable Fuel for the Maritime Industry

Last week, I wrote about a crucial new report that discusses four fuel technologies: batteries, hydrogen, ammonia, and nuclear. These could reduce the shipping sector’s emissions in line with targets set in the IMO’s Initial GHG Strategy. The report, Reducing CO2 Emissions to Zero, concludes that “all industry stakeholders … need to get on with the job of developing zero CO2 fuels.” This call to action should be consequential: it comes from the International Chamber of Shipping, an influential industry group that represents “more than 80% of the world merchant fleet.”

This week, I provide an example of the kind of research required, with an update on a project that aims to demonstrate “the technical feasibility and cost effectiveness of an ammonia tanker fueled by its own cargo.”

Although this project is still in its early days, I want to highlight three aspects that I believe will be crucial to its success. First, the work is being done by a consortium, bringing together many industry stakeholders, each with its own expertise and commercial interests. Second, the scope of research extends beyond conventional engine configurations to include not just new fuels but also new technology combinations; in other words, rather than assess new fuels in old engines, it aims to develop optimized propulsion designs for zero-emission fuels. And, third, its consideration of ammonia as a fuel begins with a comprehensive safety analysis.

I first wrote about this project after the province of Zuid-Holland announced, in January 2018, two years of funding through the Dutch agency, Topsector Water. In May 2018, Niels de Vries provided an update on the expanding consortium and outlined some of its initial technical considerations during his presentation at the NH3 Event in Rotterdam, entitled Ammonia as a Renewable Fuel for the Maritime Industry.

The consortium: industry stakeholders getting on with the job

Click to enlarge. C-Job (Niels de Vries), Ammonia as a Renewable Fuel for the Maritime Industry, NH3 Event presentation, May 2018
This research project was launched as a collaboration between C-Job, a firm of naval architects, Proton Ventures, an ammonia engineering specialist, and Enviu, a social impact venture with the tagline “we start world-changing companies.”

Since the launch, global ammonia producer Yara has joined the team as a “Knowledge partner,” and Enviu has established its dedicated spin-off, Future Proof Shipping, which aims to “validate, and scale hydrogen-based clean energy technologies that will provide a competitive advantage in shipping, and result in a fossil fuel and emissions free maritime industry.”

Future Proof Shipping has already launched its first real-world pilot project, which will demonstrate the use of hydrogen fuel. Its description of that hydrogen pilot serves perfectly to describe its aims in this ammonia fuel project, including its intention to establish projects quickly, demonstrate technologies at scale, and build partnerships across the full range of stakeholders.

We aim to identify the most efficient and reliable combination of fuel cell system and renewable fuel which provides zero emissions propulsion, and exhibits a realistic path towards economic viability and large-scale commercialization.

We will not be the first to pilot fuel cells / hydrogen in the marine industry, but will be the first to demonstrate such a system for the main propulsion at this scale. The zero-emissions pusher which is now in the planning stage will be operational at the end of 2018, transporting container cargo between the Netherlands and Belgium.

We are finalizing our agreements with a terminal operator, cargo owner from the lifestyle products industry, a shipbuilder, technical universities, NGOs, fuel cells and battery suppliers and other technology innovators in the maritime and energy sectors.
Future Proof Shipping website, The Pilot, accessed July 2018

Ammonia fuel technologies and propulsion systems
The consortium will assess potential technologies and system configurations for using ammonia, both as a direct fuel and also as a hydrogen carrier. The technologies under consideration include internal combustion engines as well as two types of fuel cell, PEMFC (proton-exchange membrane fuel cell, which requires high-purity hydrogen fuel) and SOFC (solid oxide fuel cell, which can use ammonia fuel directly).

Click to enlarge. C-Job (Niels de Vries), Ammonia as a Renewable Fuel for the Maritime Industry, NH3 Event presentation, May 2018
To illustrate the range of options under consideration, the slide on the right shows one potential configuration, the fifth pictured in de Vries’s presentation. It shows a hybrid setup that combines both an SOFC, fueled with ammonia, and a PEMFC, fueled with hydrogen that is produced from ammonia, on-demand, using an on-board ammonia cracker.

As de Vries explains:

This combines the high efficiency and thermal energy of the SOFC with the high power density and cost effectiveness of the PEMFC. This hybrid configuration could be an intermediate step in fuel cell adoption for power generation onboard vessels since the SOFC currently has a lower power density and is very expensive compared to the PEMFC. Yet the feasibility of each configuration has to be studied further.

The safety of ammonia as a maritime fuel
The project also includes an in-depth assessment of the safety of ammonia, which it will examine from four angles: bunkering, storage, consumption, and leakage / system failure. To ensure that the resulting analysis is relevant to the shipping sector, the consortium is working with a classification society from the outset.

According to de Vries:

Preliminary discussions have been with done with Bureau Veritas, one of the maritime industry’s leading international certification agencies. These discussions pointed towards the adoption of the IGF Code (Code of safety for ships using gases or other low-flashpoint fuels) as a main guideline for setting up the design. The IGF Code was firstly developed for adoption of liquid & compressed natural gas (LNG & CNG) as a fuel. The experience with safely applying natural gas as a fuel on ship could prove to be valuable knowledge to implement ammonia as a fuel. A preliminary HAZID will be done end of this year [2018].

Safety is a crucial part of any fuel assessment. Fuels are dangerous, by definition: they are energy dense and combustible, which often means explosive. Unlike most fuels, ammonia is not generally explosive but it is a hazardous chemical and it must be handled responsibly to manage the less-familiar risks posed by causticity and toxicity. As I’ve written before, ammonia presents different risks but similar risk levels to other fuels, which means that there’s no reason to avoid using ammonia as a fuel from a risk management or regulatory perspective. The risks of ammonia are well-known, and engineering solutions exist that enable responsible risk management and safe use of ammonia today as a fertilizer, refrigerant, and industrial chemical across the world.

Click to download. International Chamber of Shipping, Reducing CO2 Emissions to Zero, July 2018
Returning to the ICS report, Reducing CO2 Emissions to Zero, it makes two interesting points on the subject of safety.

First, the report explains that every fuel poses safety challenges. For batteries, “their high energy density imposes additional risk management requirements.” Hydrogen “would need careful risk management. It has a very wide flammable range and very low minimum ignition energy, while embrittlement of metals might lead to leakages.” And “widespread use of nuclear fuels is unlikely to be viewed as politically acceptable by the majority of governments, due to concerns about safety and security.” With ammonia, the primary risk is clear: “Exposure to gaseous anhydrous ammonia can cause caustic burns, lung damage and death.”

Second, it acknowledges that “the principal concern about using ammonia as a marine fuel is safety.” In this statement, the ICS has articulated, perhaps without realizing it, a truth that advocates of ammonia fuel already know. When considering ammonia as a fuel, the first concern is not whether ammonia could be a good fuel (which it is), nor whether we have the necessary technologies to create or combust the fuel (which we do), nor whether infrastructure could be expanded to sufficient scale (which it can), but that people are scared of ammonia. Safety is their primary, knee-jerk concern. This is not an engineering challenge, or an investment challenge, or even a safety challenge; this is a perception of safety challenge.

The ICS report’s section on ammonia concludes that “the challenges involved might not be insurmountable.” The outcome of this research project, and others like it, which will lead to the full-scale ammonia fuel demonstrations that must follow, will show that these safety challenges can be responsibly managed.

You can read my broader analysis of the ICS report in last week’s article, International Chamber of Shipping endorses “Reducing CO2 Emissions to Zero,” with ammonia as a maritime fuel.

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