Kawasaki Moving Ahead with LH2 Tanker Project

Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KWI) is moving ahead with plans for a “liquefied hydrogen carrier ship,” as reported by at least two Japanese news outlets since July.  This means that the groups backing each of the energy carriers included within Japan’s Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) have all made significant moves ahead of the program’s termination at the end of 2018.  On July 25, 2017 the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) announced that a collection of companies and research institutions had come together to form the Green Ammonia Consortium.  On July 27, 2017, Chiyoda Corporation announced that work was starting on a demonstration project that will transport hydrogen from Brunei to Japan using liquid organic hydride carrier technology.

In a previous post, Ammonia Energy framed the dynamic among the three energy carriers as a competition.  The assumption underlying this presumed rivalry is that, based on experience in most industrial sectors, over time one solution among multiple aspirants tends to achieve a position of dominance .  It is theoretically possible for two or more technologies to co-exist with more or less equal shares of the market.  Such a circumstance is rare in practice because one of the technologies in a competitive field tends to establish its superiority on the critical dimensions of cost and performance.  However, it is not the case that the solution that would be best over the long-term always wins.  An inferior solution can attain a dominant position based on short-term considerations – including, for example, early deployment of hard assets that creates the belief that investment in a competing technology would be pointless because the first technology’s lead is already insurmountable.

It is in this light that KWI’s motivations – and those of its partners Electric Power Development Company (which operates under the name J Power), Iwatani, and Shell  — must be assessed.  The clearest view of the KWI initiative comes from an August 21, 2017 Sankei Biz article that describes KWI’s plans to liquefy hydrogen produced from Australian lignite and transport it in cryogenic tankers to Japan.  According to an earlier article in The Guardian, an agreement was signed in this connection with officials from the Australian state of Victoria on January 11, 2017.

The case for this method of hydrogen supply rests on KWI’s assertion that lignite or “brown coal” can be an economically advantaged source of hydrogen.  Lignite makes up almost half of Australia’s recoverable coal deposits but its export potential (and ability to command globally prevailing coal prices) is constrained by its low energy content – on a mass basis, just one quarter that of conventional black coal.  Its exportability is not helped by the material’s tendency to spontaneously ignite if the water that makes up 50-60% of its mass is removed.  KWI indicated to Sankei Biz that the material’s embodied hydrogen can be extracted on site and then shipped to Japan with a total cost that “is expected to be lower than [that of hydrogen derived from] renewable energy such as sunlight and wind power.”

This asserted economic advantage would mean little if the scheme entailed release of the lignite’s native carbon content to the atmosphere.  (A generating station that is fueled with lignite is being shut down this year because it is the “dirtiest” one in Australia.)  Victorian authorities intend to lighten the carbon footprint by sequestering the CO2 byproduct in a depleted natural gas field located about 80 km from the coal mines.  As of March 2017, the possibility of sequestering CO2 in this way was still being studied under the auspices of the State of Victoria.

KWI’s particular interest is to create business for its ship manufacturing arm.  The company’s plan is to build a demonstration vessel in 2019 which it can put into service in 2020.  The ship will be purpose-built, with a specially designed stainless tank to contain the liquid hydrogen.  The tank will have high-performance insulation to minimize the problem of hydrogen boil-off.  KWI envisions a system to capture the boil-off so that it can be used to help power the ship.  The capacity of the tank on the demonstration ship will be 1,250 cubic meters.  In due course, the company envisions scaling up to a tank size of 4,000 cubic meters, with as many as four tanks per ship.  KWI projects that two such ships in continuous service could supply enough hydrogen for three million fuel-cell vehicles.

The budget for the demonstration project is “tens of billions of yen” (hundreds of millions of dollars).

One notable point about the KWI project is its deep history.  Public-private cooperation around the concept of intercontinental transport of liquefied hydrogen goes back at least as far as 1993 when Japan’s Agency of Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) launched its New Sunshine Program with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) as project coordinator.  Contained within the program is the International Clean Energy System Technology Utilizing Hydrogen (World Energy Network or WE-NET).  According to a paper published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, the specific goal of WE-NET “is to construct a worldwide energy network for effective supply, transportation and utilization of renewable energy using hydrogen.”  WE-NET was given an ultra-long-range timeline of 28 years.  Although its nominal end date is in 2020, the WE-NET Web site describes the ultimate aspiration as “worldwide deployment by the year 2030.”

WE-NET has organized its research efforts around discrete technologies that fit together into a single integrated value chain.  The focus for hydrogen production is electrolysis of water via solid polymer electrolyte membrane technology.  For transportation, it is hydrogen liquefaction and transportation by ocean tanker.  And for end use, it is electricity production via hydrogen combustion turbine.

This means that, in addition to the makings of a possible business case, KWI is bringing to its liquid hydrogen thrust the momentum of a program that has been underway for almost 25 years.  One more factor could also be part of the company’s thinking.   The liquid hydrogen and liquid organic hydride energy carrier options are likely to have a high degree of infrastructural compatibility.  This is based on the fact that in both cases the operational commodity in the last steps of the supply chain is elemental hydrogen.  This circumstance could facilitate the adoption of a common set of commodity handling practices that would accommodate both hydrogen brought into the country in liquid state, and hydrogen that is produced by dehydrogenation of a liquid organic hydride.  Ammonia, by contrast, will involve an entirely distinct supply chain.

With KWI preparing to build its first liquid hydrogen tanker, and Chiyoda Corporation and partners embarking on their Brunei LOH project, it remains to be seen what tangible investments the members of the Green Ammonia Consortium will make to start ammonia’s career as a preferred energy carrier.


LH2 tanker image courtesy of The Motorship.  The image accompanied an excellent article on KWI’s liquid hydrogen tanker.

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