Dawn of a new age: First seaborne liquefied hydrogen shipment underway
As the world's first seaborne shipment of liquefied hydrogen gets underway, optimists see the dawn of a hydrogen economy that could help avert climate disasters in the coming decades.
Having arrived at Hastings, Victoria, Australia on 20 January, the world's first purpose-built liquefied hydrogen carrier—the Suiso Frontier—is preparing to transport the fuel back to the Japanese port of Kobe by the end of February.
Some observers have compared the vessel to the Elizabeth Watts, which carried the world's first ocean-going oil cargo in 1861, and the Methane Pioneer, responsible for moving the first LNG shipment in 1959. Suiso means hydrogen in Japanese.
"This is kind of like a history-making event, with the first international shipment of liquid hydrogen … for the purpose of trade between two countries," Daryl Wilson, executive director of industry body the Hydrogen Council, told Net-Zero Business Daily.
Experts believe hydrogen must have a greater share in the future energy mix for the world to counter climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, global demand for low-carbon hydrogen needs to amount to 520 million metric tons (mt)/year by 2050 to help achieve net-zero emissions at the midcentury point.
The vision can be only realized if hydrogen can be shipped by sea. European and Northeast Asian countries will seek large quantities of hydrogen from overseas suppliers as they cannot produce sufficient volumes to meet domestic demand, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has predicted.
"There is going to be a need for long-distance transportation of energy, because the natural endowment of any country seldom can fully satisfy its energy demand," Wilson said. "Especially in the energy-thirsty areas … a lot of hydrogen needs to be imported."
But there remain stiff technical and commercial challenges in seaborne hydrogen transportation. In liquid form, hydrogen needs to be stored in tanks at minus 253 degrees Celsius—just 20 degrees above absolute zero—to avoid evaporation.
The temperature is much lower than the boiling points of common seaborne commodities. LNG, often described as a super-chilled fuel, only needs to be cooled to minus 162 degrees Celsius for shipping and storage.
When constructing the Suiso Frontier, the pilot vessel for the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project, Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) had to install a double-walled, vacuum-insulated tank with a capacity of 1,250 cubic meters (cu m) for this purpose.
Magnus Lindgren, a senior ship surveyor at classification society DNV, said such a tank would need to be built with metallic materials that can avoid embrittlement and insulation properties to reduce to the boil-off rate.
This points to very demanding design requirements, Lindgren suggested, adding that "containment for hydrogen must also be designed with a very low risk of leakage."
Associated safety regulations for building hydrogen-carrying ships are still under development.
In 2016, the International Maritime Organization—shipping's global regulatory body—adopted the Interim Recommendations for Carriage of Liquefied Hydrogen in Bulk to complement the International Code for the Construction and Equipment of Ships Carrying Liquefied Gases in Bulk. The rules likely will be updated as technologies develop.
"With the feedback from actual ship construction and operation, we are going to develop more adequate rules for the social and commercial implementation of liquefied hydrogen carriers," said ClassNK, the Japanese organization that classifies the Suiso Frontier.
Joint Australia-Japan project
In the HESC's pilot phase, Japan and Australia together committed A$500 million ($351 million) to creating a hydrogen supply chain between the two countries. The Australian federal and Victorian state governments each contributed A$50 million, while Tokyo footed the rest of the bill.
Aside from the vessel, the supply chain includes a demonstration plant that produces hydrogen gas from biomass and brown coal in Victoria's Latrobe Valley via gasification, a 0.25-mt/day liquefaction plant in Hastings, and land-based transportation and storage facilities in Japan and Australia.
The project operators are AGL, Sumitomo, and the CO2-free Hydrogen Energy Supply-chain Technology Research Association (HySTRA)—established by KHI, Shell, J-POWER, Marubeni, ENEOS, and K Line.
"Over the next two years, the project partners will undertake extensive research and development of the technical and operational requirements for a commercial-scale project," the HESC said in a statement 21 January.
No price tag was given for the Suiso Frontier, which is due to make one trip every three months between Japan and Australian in the pilot phase. IHS Markit data shows HySTRA is the vessel owner and Shell manages the ship technically.
KHI has a long-term goal of building 160,000-cu m liquefied hydrogen carriers based on its experience. "To achieve affordable hydrogen in the future, we have to scale up the capacity to reduce the [transportation] cost of hydrogen," the shipbuilder told Net-Zero Business Daily in an email. "The establishment of the hydrogen supply chain needs huge investment with policy support."
In a statement issued 21 January, Australia's federal government said it will provide another A$7.5 million to support the HESC's "pre-commercialization phase," estimated to require A$184 million. It did not elaborate on what this phase will entail and how long it will last.
If all goes well, the HESC will supply 225,000 mt of hydrogen when entering its commercial phase in the 2030s, according to the project website.
However, there are doubts over the project's environmental benefits as gray hydrogen is used in the pilot phase. The project operators said they have bought carbon offsets to mitigate the initial emissions, and that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be adopted if the HESC proceeds to the commercial phase.
The expertise gained from transporting liquefied gray hydrogen in the pilot project can easily apply to shipping green or blue hydrogen in liquid form, according to Wilson. Green hydrogen is produced from electrolyzers powered by renewables, while blue hydrogen is generated from fossil fuels and the emissions are sequestered.
"The important aspect here is we're starting to move large quantities of energy in a decarbonized form," he said. "Over time, the sources of that energy will also be decarbonized."
Aside from liquefied hydrogen, recent test projects for shipping hydrogen by sea focus on converting hydrogen to ammonia or liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC) before the shipments.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shipped several cargoes of blue ammonia, produced from hydrogen via fossil fuel gasification and using CCS, in recent quarters. The Advanced Hydrogen Energy Chain Association for Technology Development, whose members include Mitsubishi and engineering group Chiyoda, completed an LOHC shipment from Brunei to Japan in 2019.
Hydrogen in ammonia and LOHC forms can be transported by conventional vessels and stored in existing tanks, so logistics costs are lower compared with seaborne transportation of liquefied hydrogen. However, they might need to be converted back to hydrogen, depending on end-users' requirements, so the overall costs could still be higher.
Because the conversion of hydrogen to and from other forms requires energy that could be generated from fossil fuels, KHI suggested liquefied hydrogen may achieve the lowest lifecycle emissions. "Liquefied hydrogen requires new infrastructure but does not require energy for evaporation," the shipbuilder said.
In general, experts say liquefied hydrogen is more suitable for use in fuel cells, while power plants and chemical producers would be keener to use ammonia. Liquefied hydrogen carriers could be expensive to scale up due to costly tanks, so one possible scenario is that they will be mainly used in shortsea and regional trading while ammonia and LOHC carriers become the workhorses for deepsea routes.
"Different applications for different uses," said Alex Klaessig, a senior hydrogen researcher at IHS Markit. "The world is a complex place that requires complex solutions."
Regardless of the hydrogen form, many industry participants expect seaborne transportation of hydrogen to be commercialized only when demand and supply pick up globally. Some, like IRENA, expect this to happen in the 2030s.
But Wilson said some trading routes could emerge later this decade amid decarbonization efforts. The Hydrogen Council said global hydrogen demand must reach 140 million mt by 2030 to put the world on track to achieve net-zero emissions by midcentury—and a lot of that is likely to be supplied by non-native producers.
"The period between now and 2030 is a very critical period of scaling," Wilson said. "We will be already seeing a significant amount of deployment of hydrogen in all of these new [seaborne] applications by 2030."
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