Hydrogen in Maritime Shipping: Half-Truths Are Used To Keep The Green Hope Alive

Ty Emerald
By Ty Emerald

Maritime shipping, a behemoth of global commerce, stands at a crossroads, poised between traditional fuel sources and the tantalizing promise of hydrogen. This sector, often tagged as hard to abate, is in fact ripe for transformation, but not without its share of myths and half-truths, especially when it comes to hydrogen as a potential fuel source.

The Hydrogen Mirage: Understanding the Half Truths

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, often masquerades as a simple solution. Its abundance suggests affordability, yet its highly reactive nature complicates its extraction and use. Picture hydrogen as a wild horse – powerful but not easily tamed. In maritime shipping, this means that although hydrogen is everywhere, converting it into a usable form for shipping isn’t straightforward or cheap.

Energy density is another area where hydrogen’s story gets twisted. Yes, on a mass basis, hydrogen packs a punch – think of it as a lightweight boxer with the power of a heavyweight. However, by volume, it’s a different story. Hydrogen, in its natural gaseous state, is like trying to pack feathers densely – it takes up an immense volume. This leads to the necessity of compression or liquefaction, both processes that demand significant energy and resources.

Consider a car like the Toyota Mirai. It can only carry five kilograms of hydrogen – roughly equivalent to five gallons of gasoline. While more efficient than internal combustion engines, this still doesn’t provide a compelling range, especially when considering the energy loss in compression or liquefaction.

Toyota Mirai

Liquid Hydrogen: A Chilly Prospect & Even Colder Reality

Turning hydrogen into a liquid form for shipping use is akin to taming a beast. It requires chilling it down to near-absolute zero, a process that consumes a third of the hydrogen’s energy content. Even then, its energy density doesn’t come close to marine diesel. This results in the need for significantly larger fuel tanks on ships, which is impractical for large ocean-going vessels.

The issue of boil-off, where even the slightest heat exposure turns liquid hydrogen back into a gas, adds another layer of complexity. NASA’s success in preventing liquid hydrogen boil-off in storage tanks doesn’t translate well to the dynamic and varied conditions of maritime transport. This results in a constant loss of fuel, exacerbating the inefficiency of using hydrogen in this form.

Economic Viability: A Costly Affair With A Lot Of Intentional Underestimating

The dream of cheap hydrogen fuel – at around one dollar per kilogram – remains elusive. The reality is far more expensive, with estimates ranging from six to eight dollars per kilogram without subsidies. This is due to several factors:

Capital Costs

Electrolyzers, the heart of hydrogen production, aren’t cheap, and neither are the other components of an industrial electrolysis plant. The necessity of chilling hydrogen to liquid form adds another layer of expensive, industrial-scale components.

Operational Expenses

The cost of electricity, a key input in hydrogen production, isn’t as low as some optimists claim. Industrial-scale production requires consistent and substantial electrical power, which comes at a premium. In the USA, the industrial rates for electricity hover around $0.09 per kilowatt-hour. With the need for 50 to 55 kilowatt-hours to produce a single kilogram of hydrogen, electricity alone accounts for a significant portion of the cost.

Distribution Challenges

Moving hydrogen is a Herculean task. Its low density and propensity to leak mean that it’s expensive to compress and pipe, and even more costly to transport by truck. This results in a stark reality: the majority of hydrogen is used at the point of manufacture due to the high distribution costs.

Cryogenic Costs

The chilling process necessary to liquefy hydrogen consumes a substantial amount of energy, adding more operational expenses. The capital costs of the required cryogenic components must also be spread across the hydrogen output, further inflating the price.

When all these factors are combined, the cost of hydrogen as a shipping fuel skyrockets to $8,000 to $10,000 per ton, significantly higher than the average $600 per ton for maritime diesel. This cost disparity is a major barrier to hydrogen’s viability as a maritime fuel.

The Misleading Consensus and Raw Future

There’s a troubling trend in the discourse around hydrogen’s potential in shipping. A consensus, lacking in STEM and economic literacy, has emerged, painting an overly rosy picture of hydrogen’s feasibility as a maritime fuel. This view often overlooks the complexities of manufacturing, distributing, and liquefying hydrogen, as well as the realities of electricity pricing.

Organizations like the International Council on Clean Transportation, which have been using lower costs in their studies, inadvertently contribute to this misleading narrative. Their assumptions about manufacturing costs and electricity pricing fail to capture the full economic picture.

Furthermore, the idea of blue hydrogen, derived from natural gas with carbon capture, doesn’t fare much better. The additional costs of carbon capture technology, energy loss in the process, and still-present distribution and liquefaction costs make it only marginally less expensive than green hydrogen.

Conclusion: Navigating the Hydrogen Hype

As maritime shipping looks toward a sustainable future, the allure of hydrogen is undeniable. Yet, the realities – both technical and economic – present formidable challenges. Understanding these complexities is crucial in navigating the hype surrounding hydrogen and making informed decisions about the future of maritime fuel.

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