URSABLOG: Technologically Propelled

I have become used to seeing self-congratulatory, self-serving, virtue signalling press releases from various shipowners, shipyards, ship designers, main engine supplies and other interested parties saying that what they are doing in their field is a ‘game changer’ or whatever, particularly as far as reducing carbon emissions is concerned. These wonderful ships will be delivered oven ready, sorry, LNG or ammonia ready, as if all they need to do – when there is the fuel available in sufficient quantities – is to reach down to a switch next to the main engine and press it. I won’t even go into those ships which are ‘bio fuel’ ready: all ships that currently burn carbon-based fuels are by definition bio fuel ready, as long as the bio fuel is of the right specification, and, yes, ready.  

But out of this slew of announcements (which I normally skim over) comes one of genuine interest, at least to me. The ever reliable Splash 24/7 and various other web based maritime news outlets have helpfully reproduced Pherousa Green Shipping of Oslo’s press release, announcing that they will order – not just talk about it, or intend to do it, or sign a memorandum of understanding – but actually order up to six ultramaxes using an existing Deltamarin hull design, although exactly where is not clear. This is not news in itself.  What is innovative however is the fuel and propulsion technology that is going to be used. 

The fuel supplied to the ship will be ammonia, but the engines will not be powered just by ammonia but hydrogen. The ammonia will be ‘cracked’ over a catalyst to separate it into its constituent elements (NH4 – one nitrogen atom to four hydrogen ones):

Pherousa Green Technology (PGT) said its ammonia cracking technology allows the ship’s engines to be operated with a minimal amount of pilot fuel, providing a truly zero-emission vessel using enriched ammonia and hydrogen as fuel. The system also enables the use of pure hydrogen in PEM fuel cells instead of direct ammonia fuel cells for electric power production.

PEM fuels cells are proton-exchange membrane fuel cells. Their strengths are that they are thin, light, operate at relatively low temperatures and easy to seal. The weaknesses however are that they are delicate, finely balanced and need constant attention. Water management is essential: if water in the cell evaporates too slowly then the membrane will be flooded, but if the water evaporates too quickly the membrane will dry out. In both cases, the cell’s stability and power output will be affected. The catalyst itself – platinum – can be easily poisoned and contaminated, especially if carbon monoxide is in the mix. And this technology is, after all, a work in progress.

But nonetheless I really like the idea of PEM fuel cells, and have never really understood why this technology hasn’t already been explored to generate electricity on existing ships instead of using diesel-powered auxiliary engines. They are already being used in aeroplanes apparently. If they can scale it up to main engine size, this really could be interesting, but it is not clear that this is what they really intend. They go on about hydrogen, but reading between the lines it looks like enriched ammonia will be the primary propulsion fuel. And the PEM fuel cells, reading through it again, will only be used for electric power production I suppose, and not for propulsion itself. It is not clear, and I suspect intentionally so.

But maybe I am getting a little too carried away. Ammonia is an efficient hydrogen carrier, and is zero-carbon; “there’s no ‘C’ in NH4!” is an unlikely, and most likely unusable marketing slogan, but I put it out there none the less. It has the same vacuous feeling as “there’s no ‘I’ in team.”

Hans Bedrup, Pherousa Green Technology (PGT) Group chairman says: 

“The only fuel that is truly zero emission is hydrogen, but hydrogen storage is the biggest challenge for deep-sea shipping… The ammonia cracking technology developed by PGT is a game changer that could become a major contributor toward the realisation of the world´s zero-emission shipping.” 

But ammonia storage and use is problematic. Ammonia ia a deadly toxic gas with the ability to kill in even small doses. And sorry to bring this up again, but how will the ammonia be produced? Will it be green ammonia (produced via zero-emission processes) or blue (produced using natural gas)? And is the right colour ammonia available in the right places in sufficient amounts? 

The press release is also light on a few details that should interest a curious shipbroker, let alone a potential investor. How will the Deltamarin design be adapted to allow for ammonia storage tanks? What does the Deltamarin ultramax design look like anyway?

All I have to go on for the new designs is the computer-based graphic which has two huge ammonia tanks on the aft deck. How much will the ships cost? What main engine will they use? What is the endurance of the vessel? When will they deliver? All this is unclear. 

I cannot find any ships of the existing Deltamarin ultramax design ever having being built anywhere before, or any reference to it. Deltamarin are famously reticent on providing any technical information – those who were interested in building any of the B-Delta design of handysizes had to sign a lengthy and strict NDA. The nearest thing I can find are two ships – self discharging shallow draft kamsarmaxes of 65,000 dwt with a draft of 12.5m, odd and specific designs – which seem to come and go between Puerto Cortes in Honduras and oil refineries in the US, so they must be on some long-term contract for some specific cargo. These were by no means ships of the future even when they were built.

One thing that interests me however is that these Pherousa ships appear to be being ordered against long-term contracts too, this time for copper concentrates:

“The initial fleet of six ships is aimed at the worldwide copper industry and Pherousa Green Shipping is said to be in advanced talks with miners for their employment. The company added that it is working actively with fuel suppliers, yards, and financiers to ensure timely delivery of the vessels, but it did not provide any specific timeframe.”

This makes some sense: have fuel supplies available near both ports of loading and discharging, run on a regular service, squeeze as much subsidies out of the system to pay for the shipments, the ships and the ship finance, don’t reveal the price of the ships, or the contracts of affreightment or when specifications will be ready and try and build up a head of steam. And copper is going to be in strong demand for the green transition.

I am not necessarily against any of this, because a low/zero solution has to be found at some point and this maybe a step in the right direction. And that people are trying to work out different solutions using different technologies, and putting together partnerships and business ventures that address some of the issues is even more encouraging. 

There is never going to be a one size fits all solution to the whole of the shipping markets in one go, but those with a keen sense of history will remember what happened in various other propulsion transitions in the past: the transition from sail to steam was – like Hemmingway’s bankruptcy – gradual and then sudden; the markets dealt sail the final blow when they were rendered obsolete. The transition from coal powered steam to oil fired main engines really was gradual, as there was always a market for steam until the ships and boilers became too old to keep going. 

The transition away from heavy fossil fuel oil will I suspect also be gradual until the markets decide that future fuels are the thing to go for. That, I also suspect, will only happen when the new fuels are proven, they are readily available, the ships and engines can take them and they are competitively priced. In the meantime, there is going to be an interesting mix of ‘solutions’ until the market, one way or the other, decides. It will be an interesting voyage. 

Simon Ward