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Scotland to gain a hydrogen fuel-cell powered ferry

30 July 2018

The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) is involved in the development of a hydrogen fuel cell powered ocean-going ferry for passenger and vehicle transport.

The expected design of the ferry (Credit: DLR)

The objective of the European Union-funded 'HySeas III' research project is to provide a shuttle service between the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shapinsay with a new type of ship powered by renewable energy sources, beginning in the year 2021. The DLR Institute of Networked Energy Systems is participating in the project by providing comprehensive economic and ecological analyses, while determining the market potential in Europe.

Electric drive instead of diesel engine

Under the leadership of the Port Glasgow-based Ferguson shipyard, the ferry is being designed for a capacity of around 120 passengers and 18 vehicles. Measuring 35 metres, with a beam of 10 metres and a two-metre draught, it will replace the currently used diesel-powered ship. The technological novelty of the new ferry lies in its electric drive. To this end, fuel cells are installed in order to convert hydrogen into electrical energy on board. This is quite a challenge for the shipbuilders because the heavy ship's engine and chimney are done away with. Accordingly, the weight distribution of the ferry must be completely redesigned. In the course of the project, the scientists and engineers will calculate the position and size – and therefore performance – of the energy storage unit and then determine the final design of the ferry.

Hydrogen from surplus renewable energies

There is no doubt, however, about the origin of the fuel. For about five years, wind, wave and tidal power plants in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland have generated surplus renewable energy. Due to limited network capacity to the mainland, it was decided to convert the surplus energy into hydrogen directly on site. At the same time, the construction of a hydrogen infrastructure was started so that the ferry could be refuelled with a mobile trailer. “So with HySeas III, we will not only achieve a world first in shipbuilding, but also in building sustainable local sources of fuelling in parallel,” explains project coordinator Martin Smith at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Efficiency put to the test

Scientists at the DLR Institute of Networked Energy Systems are investigating whether the new ship concept will also bring economic and ecological advantages compared with other innovative drive concepts and the requisite infrastructure. "We are undertaking a detailed analysis of the cost structures, starting with the probable direction of commodity prices through to the ongoing operating and maintenance costs, as well as the costs for the subsequent professional disposal of waste," explains Thomas Vogt, Head of the Energy Systems Analysis Department. "We are also performing this analysis for comparable concepts, for example, ferries with diesel, hybrid or purely electric drives. The necessary – partly networked – infrastructure also needs to be considered. Only by directly comparing this data can conclusions be drawn on the actual feasibility of the concept."

Ecological analysis from raw material extraction to waste disposal

An ecological analysis should also determine how environmentally friendly the hydrogen ferry is compared with the competition. Although no direct pollutants and emissions are released during the hydrogen production and ferry operation, numerous other factors could tarnish the result, as Vogt clarifies: "Raw materials with low availability may be required for the production process. Mining, transport and processing are sometimes energy-intensive and can significantly affect the carbon dioxide balance if no renewable energies are used for this. Waste disposal can also lead to environmental problems."

Blueprint for other ferry connections

In the long term, HySeas III could provide the blueprint for other ferry connections throughout Europe. The Institute of Networked Energy Systems wants to determine the potential for this in a market analysis. Key factors include route length, passenger and vehicle capacity, operator and population acceptance, and the ability to deliver hydrogen using renewable energy in the region. "Our analysis is intended to show the feasibility and usefulness of implementing a hydrogen-powered ferry operation, not only in the Orkney Islands, but also on other routes in Europe," Vogt says summarising the project goals.


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