maersk methanol vessel
Photo: Maersk Line

Denmark’s Blue World Technologies reports success with 200kW fuel cells and methanol, opening the door to installations of new technology on Maersk ships and potentially helping address one of methanol’s biggest problems.

Fuel cells appear the next logical step for producing auxiliary power on ships, using methanol, LNG or ammonia for the fuel. A 1MW fuel cell system is set to be installed on one of Maersk’s methanol vessels as a pilot project in 2026.

Fuel cells can obtain significantly higher efficiency than engines, converting chemical energy into electrical while skipping an engine’s intermediate heat phase.

This can be responsible for a fuel efficiency gain of 20%-30%, leading to an overall electrical efficiency of 55%.

And Blue World claims fuel cells allow for “up to 100% carbon capture”, which is not possible with engine exhaust, because of the energy required.

Given the much lower energy content of methanol fuel, raising the efficiency at which it can be burned is a major priority for shipping, ensuring not only that less of the fuel needs to be carried, but that the expense associated with it will decrease.

Although fuel cells are conventionally associated with hydrogen, Blue World’s high-temperature polymer electrolytic membrane (HT PEM) trial demonstrates the potential of using methanol. PEM technology could also be used with ammonia, while solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) could be used with LNG.

Dennis Naldal Jensen, Blue World’s chief technology officer, said: “This is a major breakthrough within maritime decarbonisation and, with the test of our 200kW system, we are proving that the HT PEM fuel cell technology has the potential of being one of the key technologies to decarbonise the hard-to-abate sectors.

“During the test period, we successfully validated our system setup with the methanol fuel processor, the series connection of the fuel cell stacks and the balance of plant components surrounding the fuel cells.”

While the major gains in engine fuel efficiency have already been exploited, leaving today’s engines close to their theoretical maximum, fuel cells are a nascent technology, suggesting many potentially improvements to the technology as it gains wider adoption, and more resources committed to its development.

However, there is a long way to go.

Quizzed recently on the upper limits of a containerised fuel cell setup, Christian Vinther, marine business development manager at Ballard Power Systems, told The Loadstar that, in due course it would be possible to fit 1.5MW of fuel cell capacity inside a 40ft container. That means an installation as large as 55 40ft boxes would be needed to match the power output of today’s large low-speed diesels.

“We are seeking interest for much larger systems than we have today,” said Mr Vinther. “We are seeing requests for systems of 40MW.”

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