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Trends come and go, research persists

23 November 2020

Last year, ammonia was hyped, this year hydrogen. What create the trends around alternative marine fuels? In any case, it is not the research, says Selma Brynolf who leads the research project Hydrogen, ammonia and battery operation for the shipping of the future.

“It has always swung. When I started researching almost 15 years ago, LNG was the solution and the rescue. Then methanol was discussed, perhaps not so much globally but at least in Sweden, before ammonia took over and then hydrogen.”

What lies behind the fluctuations? Selma Brynolf, who is a researcher at Chalmers, has no definite answer to that question except that she does not think it is the research - its role is to continuously investigate the alternatives that exist.

“The EU's decision to invest in hydrogen infrastructure has certainly meant a lot for hydrogen to be raised in shipping”, she says and continues:
“When ammonia suddenly appeared as a possible fuel a few years ago, we had not thought much about that before. We live in a world where hypes are being created more easily than before.

How much has this to do society's increased digitalisation, where social media in particular has become increasingly important for opinion formation and marketing? Facebook and Twitter are permeated by an ttitude whre the most complex issues are polarized at hyper speed – it's black or white, for or against and nothing in between.

- I think it comes into play and that things are hyped faster and more than before, but I think most things come out anyway. It is in human nature to find new solutions, but there may be stronger peaks, more black and white, as society looks now. The LNG hype, which was like ten years ago, I don’t think was driven by social media.

Hype or not – for Selma Brynolf it does not matter much.
For her, hydrogen and ammonia are the same research issue.

“I view ammonia as a hydrogen carrier. It is a way to store hydrogen on board”, she says and continues:
“I think the talk about hydrogen in the EU has to do with the fact that it is a building block for larger molecules. Hydrogen can be converted into ammonia, methanol or, if one would like it as an energy carrier in shipping, methane.

Liquid hydrogen as marine fuel has often been viewed as risky and costly. The research project Hydrogen, ammonia and battery operation, which Lighthouse runs within the framework of the Swedish Transport Administration's industry program Sustainable Shipping, and which is led by Selma Brynolf, has so far pointed out that the latter may be true.

“According to our figures, it’s very expensive, especially the process of liquefaction which takes a lot of energy. But this is only done on a small scale today, so there is great uncertainty about what it will cost in an optimized scale in the future.”

Both ammonia and methanol appear to be cheaper alternatives according to the study. But on the other hand, all alternative fuels are expensive.

“I thought hydrogen was an interesting alternative and since it is the simplest form of energy. And I'm still positive about hydrogen”, says Selma Brynolf.

The three-year research project should’ve been started at the beginning of the year, but like much else it has been delayed duue to the corona pandemic. It was not until September, when an international doctoral student was able to get in place, that tings really got going.

“We will do case studies on two ships. One for ocean vessels and one for short sea shipping. We will count on the environmental impact of hydrogen and ammonia, both in fuel cells and in internal combustion engines, and also take a closer look at battery-electric propulsion.”

In three years, the idea is to have developed a conceptual design of a ships future fossil-free energy system. In other words, a total fossil-free solution is years away. What will happen along the way? Will a new fuel pop up and be hyped or will the shipping industry stick to hydrogen?

“It's too early to say. There is no silver bullet and the industry is exploring the options available. That is why these fluctuations exist and that new alternatives are popping up. But I hope that there will not be so many more, but that we find ways forward with the ones we have.”

It's about finding ways, learning more and testing so that things finally work. It’s not even certain that the best option wins. Market forces and pure coincidences have always played a major role during technology shifts.

“If a lot of companies choose to invest in a fuel that turns out to work and the volumes start to grow in both knowledge and manufacturing, well then it probably has an advantage. But, as I said, many fuels and propulsion systems are being tested now”, says Selma Brynolf.

Footnote: The research project on Hydrogen, ammonia and battery operation (Vätgas, ammoniak och batteridrift) is carried out by Chalmers, IVL and SSPA

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