Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, December 3, 2022

Sandia Labs Finds Energy-Efficient Method for Powering Ships 

<img style="float: left;" src="http://media2.hpcwire.com/dmr/800px-Line0534.jpg" alt="" width="95" height="61" border="0" />Automakers are busy at work developing a hydrogen fuel cell specifically for cars. But researchers at Sandia National Laboratories may have expanded the clean energy source’s role to include docked or anchored ships.

As researchers continue to refine hydrogen fuel cell technology, their applications for lighting systems, forklifts and light-duty trucks have continued to grow. Meanwhile, automakers are busy at work developing a hydrogen fuel cell specifically for cars. But researchers at Sandia National Laboratories may have expanded the clean energy source’s role to include docked or anchored ships.  

Their study, done on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, discovered that hydrogen fuel cells could replace diesel generators on ships, and in turn cut down on a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.  In a study done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the daily emissions at a busy port could exceed the emissions of over 500,000 vehicles.

Their study found that a ship could be powered by mounting a hydrogen-fueled proton exchange membrane (PEM) atop a floating barge.  While a simple ship requiring minimal power would only need a single container to house the fuel cell and hydrogen, a larger ship may require four—two for the fuel cell and two for the hydrogen fuel storage.

This is not the first alternative method that bypasses diesel engines, however.  A different system, known as “cold ironing,” utilizes on-shore electricity to power ships. Technically, hydrogen fuel is a type of cold ironing, as it is an external energy source that connects to a ship at berth, but current cold-ironing methods still produce emissions.  Not only that, but it is a complex system to install, and it is expensive, costing ports anywhere from $5-10 million or more per berth.  

While the hydrogen fuel method is an all-around better fit, it can’t be applied everywhere.  According to Joe Pratt, a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, “In California, ports are already installing the necessary infrastructure for cold-ironing because of the regulations introduced a few years ago.  So hydrogen fuel cell auxiliary power has the opportunity for greater impact elsewhere. While this was an unexpected finding, we discovered other locations and applications for hydrogen fuel cell power.”

A few of these locations include Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. In Oregon and Washington, the cold-ironing method is either very limited or has not been implemented.  The hydrogen fuel method is attractive because it’s environmentally friendly and there aren’t a lot of cold-ironing alternatives. It could be beneficial in Hawaii as well because diesel generators are mainly used when transporting cargo from island to island. 

“A successful deployment of the containerized fuel cell on a floating platform in a typical marine environment will be useful not only in this particular service, but also because it validates the concept for the larger, container-ship-sized application,” Pratt said. “It’s challenging on many levels, but technically feasible with potential worldwide commercial impact.”

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