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Soon easier to build hydrogen-powered ships

23 February 2024

Those who want to build a hydrogen-powered ship today will find it difficult. However, much has happened in the past year regarding the regulations and guidelines that hinder progress in this area. In a few years, the development of regulations combined with several demonstration projects will lower the barriers, researchers behind a new report from the Swedish Transport Administration and Lighthouse believes.

A few years ago, the pre-study Säker vätgasinstallation ombord (Safe Hydrogen Installation Onboard) was carried out as part of the Swedish Transport Administration's industry program Hållbar sjöfart (Sustainable Shipping), which is operated by Lighthouse. One of the results showed that the issue of regulations and design approval remained complicated. Those who want to design and build a hydrogen-powered ship must use the so called alternative design method to prove that the propulsion system is sufficiently safe – a difficult, expensive, and extensive process.

"The responsibility is entirely on the shipowner, which many see as a hindrance to transitioning to fossil-free fuels. It's not that the will isn't there, but the process simply becomes overwhelming," says Ellinor Forsström, project manager at RISE.

Therefore, she and some colleagues have carried out a follow-up innovation project, called H2 – by the book, which delves deeper into what the alternative design process looks like in practice.

In the project, they have started from a real case, the ship concept Beluga 24 – a high-speed passenger ship that Green City Ferries plans to equip with fuel cells and compressed hydrogen as fuel.

"They have already developed a design and are now facing this process. So the question was: How would the approval of the design go for them if it were to enter the process today?"

The answer is that the regulations alone are very extensive, difficult to read, and hard to navigate.

"Getting into it requires enormous effort. And the more you learn about it, the more you understand that there are so many uncertainties that it becomes a very cumbersome and time-consuming process to get approval for a hydrogen-powered ship," says Ellinor Forsström.

However, she believes that the project itself can help push the work on regulations and guidelines forward. DNV, the Swedish Transport Agency, and Uppsala University have participated in the project.

"This means that we have involved all the parties that are somehow affected by design approval. And both the Swedish Transport Agency, which is the approving authority, and classification societies like DNV are now involved in the issues themselves. They have gained a lot from the project.

So how long will it take before regulations and guidelines are in place so that hydrogen-powered ships can be built, tested, and operated?

"It's impossible to answer, but what we can say is that when we started the project a year ago, there were significantly fewer guidelines and guidelines compared to what exists now. There are classification societies today that have prescriptive rules for the use of hydrogen onboard that can be used as support for the Swedish Transport Agency and other approving authorities.”

As for alternative design and the construction of hydrogen-powered ships, one must currently adhere to 18 functional requirements described in the so-called IGF Code.

"These requirements essentially state that the design should be equivalent to a conventional propulsion system, but what they don't say is how this is achieved and what is classified as sufficiently safe. There are no clear directives and thresholds. This makes it difficult for both builders and the Swedish Transport Agency, which must assess what is sufficiently safe.”

Therefore, more demonstration projects are needed, which actually applies not only to hydrogen but to all types of alternative propulsion systems, says Ellinor Forsström.

"It is only then that things start to ease, but there are also aspects of the alternative design process that could be streamlined.”

For example, the initial risk analysis, which takes a lot of time. Here, the Nordic countries could come together in a project to reach consistent assessment criteria. But however it turns out, it is the one taking the lead that will have to bear a heavy burden.

"It requires a shipping company with a lot of muscle. Gotland's company, which plans to launch a hydrogen-powered ferry, within a few years is such an example.”

So they can succeed in this before 2030?

"Absolutely. A year ago, there were basically only guidelines for the placement of fuel cells. Now, information is starting to come out about the remaining systems, although there are still some gaps regarding onboard storage and bunkering procedures. But since the interest is so high now, progress is fast.”

The report H2 – by the book has been authored by:
Tobias Olsson, Jonatan Gehandler, Joanne Ellis, Ellinor Forsström, RISE
In collaboration with:
GreenCityFerries, Swedish Transport Agency, DNV, and Uppsala University

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