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It’s elementary! Ardmore’s hydrogen fuelling light-bulb moment

The penny really dropped for Anthony Gurnee when he realized how much space it takes to store hydrogen as a fuel on vessels.

“The light-bulb moment came for us in talks with a company that was going to use containerized compressed hydrogen. The numbers were quite striking,” the Ardmore Shipping chief executive tells TW+.

The system meant you ended up with 450kg of the fuel in a 40-foot container weighing 40 tonnes, says Gurnee. Just enough to power a small ship for 20 hours.

And so Ardmore got back in touch with Oregon technology company Element 1, run by founder and chief executive Dave Edlund, and US financier Maritime Partners, to form a joint venture called e1 Marine, which will convert methanol to hydrogen onboard ships.

“We went from being very skeptical to being very excited in about three weeks,” Gurnee recalls.

The advantage is clear: the same container filled with methanol would provide power for nearly two weeks. And the cost of delivering the methanol on board was not as high as for hydrogen.

“We called Dave back and said, ‘Let’s try to put this together here. It’s really night and day’,” says Gurnee, who views hydrogen as the “obvious ultimate zero-carbon fuel”.

“It’s terrific when you match it with fuel cells, and much more efficient, but the problem is: how do you get the hydrogen onboard?”

Instead, e1 Marine will supply its kit — the only such system known to exist — in a standard 20-foot (six-meter) container, to convert methanol to hydrogen, to power fuel cells, which then provide electricity. The system looks like a large box with “a few pumps and valves hanging off of it”, according to Edlund. “It’s really not much to see when you’re looking at it.”

A catalytic reactor breaks down a mixture of methanol and water into hydrogen and other gases. It can also use ammonia as a feedstock. This is followed by a hydrogen purification process that is unique to Element 1.

“That’s really what it does and it’s not any more complicated than that,” Edlund says.

The system needs virtually no retrofitting, but new buildings will be designed to fit the kit into a properly designed engine compartment.

Gurnee says the converter is a substitute for a diesel generator set and can be used for propulsion on coastal and inland vessels of up to 10,000 dwt, which will be subject to the most stringent emissions requirements.

But it can’t at this stage be scaled up to replace main oceangoing engines.

So why methanol?

Edlund describes the fuel as “probably the best that mother nature has derived, second only to sunshine. It’s widely available, it has a very high percentage of hydrogen relative to carbon, it’s a liquid, it doesn’t freeze under any conditions that are likely to be encountered and it biodegrades very quickly.”

‘We’re not planting our flag on the methanol hill’

Photo of Dave Edlund
Dave Edlund, founder of Element 1. Photo: Amy Sandrin

As for fuel cells, he adds: “It’s like shopping for potatoes — you can get ’em pretty much anywhere.”

Methanol is one of the largest commodity chemicals, with 80m tonnes produced annually. A transitional fuel at this stage, reducing emissions by up to 50% compared with conventional fuel, methanol can be made from virtually any carbon-containing feedstock, opening a path to using renewables and becoming truly zero-emission.

“We like methanol but we’re not planting our flag on the methanol hill. The system can also run on ammonia, it works just as well,” Gurnee says. But ammonia is much harder to contain and carry and is far more noxious.

He believes the key for any new fuel is the delivered cost on board: “Methanol is easy to ship.”

Then there are stranded sources of methane gas in fields not big enough to warrant infrastructure investment, for example, in Chile and New Zealand. Ardmore thinks these are the best places to make green methanol.

The system’s efficiency figures also look good. Fuel cells are at least twice as efficient as internal combustion engines, according to Gurnee.

When the cost of converting the methanol is added in, and the cost of the actual methanol — 10% more than conventional fuel — the process is 35% more efficient. This drops to 25% due to the cost of the system.

“The economics are already reasonably attractive without any carbon tax or anything else, but it becomes very compelling when you have to start paying up for carbon emissions,” Gurnee points out.

The methanol mix is 33% water, reducing costs further, adds Edlund, and the system could also become carbon-negative due to continuing work on capturing carbon emissions on board.

Ship exhausts are a “lousy location” to capture CO2, because the pollution is diluted at low pressure, and more efficient capture from the e1 system is “technically very feasible”.

“But once you’ve captured it, what do you do with it?” Gurnee asks.

One solution is to compress it and store it in a tank. “This might actually work on a river system,” he says, because the tanks could be offloaded and sold to manufacturing companies, potentially to make more methanol. “We’re still thinking that through.”

Ardmore sees the e1 Marine venture as part of its strategy to carry more sustainable cargoes, a transition to greener energy and developing new technology.

“As we start looking at new building projects on transition-type vessels, having this technology in our back pocket, and other things we’re working on, makes for an interesting partnership with end-users,” Gurnee says.

Ardmore does not ship methanol, but that is “maybe something we get into at some point”.

The shipowner is working on a number of transition technologies related to efficiency, but e1 Marine is the only one relating to fuels.

The idea is potentially to partner with other companies on these, as well as gradually shifting the tankers into carrying more non-fossil fuel cargoes, such as chemicals and veg-oils.

“People have been asking us, ‘Are you getting into the technology side?’ and the answer is, ‘Yeah, but we’ve been doing that for quite a while’,” Gurnee adds. “This is just another application of a widget to a ship.”

What Ardmore brings to the table is a knowledge of what works and what doesn’t onboard ships. “We’ve got a global network, we’ve got some capital to invest and we’ve got a testbed.”


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