ABB plans “megawatt-scale” hydrogen powertrains for container ships

ABB plans “megawatt-scale” hydrogen powertrains for container ships

ABB and Hydrogene de France are teaming up to build enormous hydrogen fuel cell powertrains for large marine vessels

Swiss/Swedish manufacturing and automation behemoth ABB is teaming up with Hydrogène de France (HDF) with the intention of developing large-scale hydrogen fuel cell systems capable of powering zero-emissions electric container ships.

Hydrogen is very much back on the menu in 2020. While much of the automotive industry has shied away from it due to inherent difficulties with storage, transport and inefficient generation, the fact is it still offers around 10 times the energy density of a lithium battery, along with a refueling process that’s much quicker than plugging into a charge point.

The shipping industry still runs pretty dirty with giant marine diesels, and has largely escaped the kind of heavy regulatory attention that the automotive sector has had to deal with. It’s certainly a cheap and efficient way to get things across the globe in bulk, but it’s still responsible for around 2.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. A single massive container ship, we reported more than a decade ago, can spew out as much air pollution as 50 million cars, so electrification can make a significant difference in this sector if done right.

It’s going to take several generations of battery development to enable long-range electric shipping operations, but hydrogen stands ready to make a difference now – at least for short-range operations. Thus, this memorandum of understanding between electrification specialists ABB and grand-scale fuel cell production specialists HDF.

The new agreement will see the development of a “megawatt-scale” powertrain for marine vessels, using HDF’s large scale manufacturing capabilities to get the thing built. The design will be done in conjunction with Ballard Power Systems, specialists in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

Triple-E class Maersk container ship capable of carrying more than 18,000 shipping containers currently makes around 60 megawatts of power, and gobbles a whopping 21,200 gallons (80,000 liters) of fuel a day. And these are among the cleanest and most efficient cargo ships on the planet. There is currently no indication of how big ABB plans to go with its first powertrains, but there is an indication that they might be able to build something for use in a hybrid arrangement on larger ships, where hydrogen could be used to “support auxiliary energy requirements of larger vessels.”

Dr. Hans C. Mumm