Advancing fuel cells for maritime applications

Advancing fuel cells for maritime applications
Interior view of Corvus’ factory in Bergen

Interest in hydrogen for marine applications is on the rise as the global shipping industry looks for ways to target the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ocean-going vessels. This week Corvus Energy and Toyota announced a new partnership to commence development and production of sustainable, large scale maritime-certified hydrogen fuel-cell systems. We attended the virtual press event to find out how the companies plan to proceed.

A new facility in Bergen, Norway is facilitating the testing and development of modularised and cost-effective PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) fuel-cell systems for the international marine market. With a EUR 5.2m backing from state agency Innovation Norway, Corvus Energy along with Toyota and other Norwegian partners including, Equinor, Norled, Wilhelmsen, LMG Marin, the NCE Maritime CleanTech cluster and the University of South-Eastern Norway (USN), aim to scale up the production of hydrogen fuel cells.

Corvus, which has already successfully rolled out its battery technology for use onboard ships, aims to find a way to make the fuel cell technology accessible and affordable for the shipping community. Geir Bjørkeli, CEO of Corvus Energy believes that one of the most challenging parts of accelerating adoption of new technology is the high cost that comes with it. The new fuel cell division in Bergen will identify ways to design and develop the technology at as little cost as possible, using the Toyota fuel-cell as a building block for larger systems.

The technology

The fuel cell will use ‘clean hydrogen’ – pure hydrogen and liquified organic hydrogen – which will be converted to electric power. This provides electric power to the vessel, although as Kristian Holmefjord, Corvus’ project director noted, batteries are still required to utilise the whole system correctly.  “Internal combustion engines today are very robust, but fuel cells need to be used with some caution,” he said. “Fuel cells must be stable in production and the way they are used in order to get the most value out of the power system. This is where Corvus and its partners will compliment its maritime battery DNA with its fuel cell development.”

Figure 1 below depicts Corvus’ interface for its current battery system and its planned fuel cell system. On the left hand side is Corvus’ maritime battery layout (the battery is shown by the orange box). This shows a clean interface for the system integrator. The battery can be integrated into the diesel engine and works alongside various equipment onboard such as propellers and the switchboard system, confirmed Mr Holmefjord. The right side of figure 1 shows the development of the fuel cell (FC in grey box), with the battery still in place. “The aim is to connect the fuel cell with the currently existing battery system on a communication level to ensure that any global system integrator will achieve the same clean interface and integration capabilities. This way we are ensuring the lifecycle and performance of the battery and the fuel cellAdvancing marine fuel cell developmen together,” Mr Holmefjord explained.

Figure 1. Corvus’ fuel cells will be connected with the existing battery system on a communication level to ensure that any global system integrator will achieve the same clean interface and integration capabilities

“We are putting our efforts and our partners efforts into ensuring we are developing a safe hardware maritime based unit and ensuring that we are delivering a control system to the integrators, to the power management onboard the ship that makes it easy for them to use it in the best possible ways on the vessel, which will be different on each vessel,” noted Mr Holmefjord. “Each vessel varies so the integration requirements will be different so Corvus is putting a lot of focus on making sure it is applicable to various types of vessels.”

It is important to note that the battery and fuel cell are not competitors. According to Halvard Hauso chief commercial officer at Corvus Energy, they require one other. For example, an LNG engine requires the battery to manoeuvre, and the fuel cell needs a battery to be a shock absorber in the system, enabling the technology to live a steady life.

Using a combination of large batteries and small fuel cells, short sea distances can be made on high speed with zero emissions. with long distance shipping, a small battery and a large fuel cell will be required. On these types of journeys, the battery has an alternative function as a stabiliser as the load is already steady for extensive time. Most vessels will be in the middle, requiring a large battery and a fairly big fuel cell.

While a battery requires charging, a fuel cell at the moment is extremely expensive, and the right infrastructure is required, noted Mr Hauso. Corvus will calculate the correct fuel size and battery size for various vessel types and operations, a critical part of bringing the technology to market.

According to Mr Hauso, in a 90 minute journey, a battery alone could save 10350 litres of diesel and 27 tonnes of CO2 with battery only installation. He says this is only going to increase as larger vessels are powered by hydrogen in this way.

Partnering up

Corvus’ goal to “scale up the production of these maritime fuel cells and bring the combination of fuel cells and batteries to the global shipping industry,” is an ambitious plan that requires a trusted partner, noted Geir Bjørkeli, CEO at Corvus Energy.

Toyota’s commitment to hydrogen and approach to developing alternative means of power meant the company was seen as a good fit for Corvus’ large-scale fuel cell plans. “Toyota is taking part as it believes that hydrogen will play a central role in creating a better future,” Freddy Bergsma, senior manager strategy and business development, fuel cell business unit Toyota Europe said. The company has recently established a Fuel Cell Business group in Brussels to promote its hydrogen activities across Europe.

Furthermore, Toyota’s large customer base positions the firm well in helping Corvus bring a new technology to market. According to Mr Bergsma, it’s about economies of scale. “We sell around 10 million cars per year, which might seem like a relatively small proportion, but in the fuel cell world this makes us a mass producer already,” Mr Bergsma explained.

Mr Bergsma went on to say that while the marine business is very complex, “we felt we needed a strong partner to find a way with us in this marine business. People that already know their way around, have the access and the support. It was very simple as Corvus is really a market leader in zero emission technology and a perfect partner for this venture.”

Roadmap to fuel cell technology

Corvus plans to conduct trials of the fuel cell in 2023, obtain type approval by 2024 with the operation of an automated factory by the same time, and a second fuel cell system by 2025, Kristian Holmefjord, Corvus’ project director confirmed. “The aim is to have a fuel cell portfolio that fits a variety of ships and requirements, similar to the batteries that are available today,” he said.

Figure 2. Corvus’ fuel cell road map to 2025

Mr Hauso noted that many of the partners and integrators Corvus has worked with to develop its battery technology will be the same for the fuel cell development. “We will work with the same shipyards and shipowners etc. Working with all these partners has made us where we are today and we will build further on this.”

So far, Corvus has more than 421 projects and more than 3,000,000 operating hours. The company currently has seven different batteries. Corvus will take the same approach to developing its fuel cell as it did with the battery technology, finding the right fuel cells for different applications and testing and trialling various configurations to ensure there are fuel cells for every vessel type and operation, as “there’s no silver bullet,” Mr Hauso said.