Hydrogen ahoy! Fuel cells could power ships

Clean dockside power would help clear the air and lower the CO2 in port cities.

Oakland hydrogen high. The air in port cities like Oakland, Calif. would be cleaner if ships turned off their diesel generators and switched to hydrogen fuel cells.


Docked and anchored ships might soon be able to draw their power from large, clean, hydrogen fuel cells rather than from the diesel generators and grid connections that they use today.

According to Sandia National Laboratories, all it would take to power a stationary container ship for two days would be a nearby barge carrying four 40-foot containers - two holding a "hydrogen-fueled proton exchange membrane" and two holding the hydrogen. A tugboat would require only a single container holding a fuel cell and the hydrogen, said Sandia, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Fuel cells generate energy from a chemical reaction with a fuel such as hydrogen, and do not emit CO2, an environmental hazard (cue to climate change deniers: write in below!).

This sounds promising, but it also sounds a tad cumbersome. And then there's the problem of where to get the hydrogen in the first place. I think there's a potential for small nuclear reactors here - both as a clean power source for the vessel and for the hydrogen production process .

Whatever the solution, ships and ports could use a clean overhaul.

Putting aside the CO2 they emit when at sea - which is a much bigger issue and again raises the question of nuclear power (think naval submarines and aircraft carriers as examples) - they're no environmental role model when berthed.

Sandia noted that auxiliary power to docked ships accounts for up to half of the in-port emissions from ocean vessels. It cited a 2004 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluding that "average daily emissions for a busy port could exceed the emissions from nearly 500,000 vehicles." That includes CO2, sulfur and others.

A limited number of U.S. ports now offer grid connections as an alternative to diesel generators. But that practice is only as CO2-free as the electricity source. It is also a "complex and costly" process, Sandia said.

Joe Pratt, a Sandia mechanical engineer, studied fuel cell potential at ports along the U.S. West Coast and in Hawaii. In the video below, he notes that fuels cells are beginning to power refrigeration containers on ships in Honolulu.

Photo from Basil D. Soufi via Wikimedia. Video from Sandia National Laboratories via YouTube.

Nuclear as a hydrogen source:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com