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Could Bloom fuel cells be a solution for maritime emissions issues?

Aerial view of a container ship

In the race to drastically cut emissions in shipping, one of the industry's biggest names, Samsung Heavy Industries, is teaming with fuel cell company Bloom Energy to develop a more sustainable fuel designed to meet steep international targets.

Under the partnership, announced in June, the companies will collaborate on creating fuel cell powertrains for commercial ships, potentially providing one critical path to a clean technology future for marine shipping. The goal is to replace oil-based power generation. 

Samsung is one of the largest shipbuilders in South Korea, along with the Hyundai Group and the Daewoo Group, and employs nearly 13,000 people. It's aiming to be the first shipbuilder to deliver a cargo ship for ocean operation that runs entirely on fuel cells powered by natural gas. Currently, an estimated 80 percent of the vessels in the world's shipping fleet operate using bunker fuel.

"Bloom thinks Samsung is a good partner and information on what the company sees as a trend for more efficient transportation and heavy shipping," Preeti Pande, vice president of strategic market development for Bloom, told GreenBiz. "Both companies have a shared vision of powering ships with fuel cells. In that sense, there is a really good partnership that is not in name only, but in values and goals."

Both companies have a shared vision of powering ships with fuel cells. In that sense, there is a really good partnership that is not in name only, but in values and goals.

And the goalposts are high. In 2018, the International Maritime Organization set the goal to halve emissions for commercial ships from 2008 levels by 2050. But by 2030, zero-emissions vessels will need to start being introduced. Bloom and Samsung want to show off their workable design in 2022.

"Shipping is 80 percent of all trade. ... It's also responsible for a lot of trade, it's also 13 percent of all [global nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide] emissions," Pande said. "[Fuel cells] meet the demands for efficiency. It's one of the lowest producers of CO2. And then you have the NOX and SOX taken care of. In that manner, you're really addressing the goal with technology we have today."

Bloom already has a lot of experience with fuel cell technology on land, she said, which is why the company is confident it can set up similar systems for marine purposes. Some of its high-profile customers include AT&T, Equinix, FedEx and Google.

Some skeptics, however, said the global nature of the shipping industry could pose challenges.

"I think the industry is kind of agnostic on fuel, but they have some concerns regarding supply and resilience of supply because they need their ships going," said Thomas Koch Blank, a senior principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute. 

Blank, who specializes in heavy transport issues, said the biggest issue for the industry's mandate to cut emissions will be decarbonizing the ports the ships land in. Because the International Maritime Organization (IMO) emissions drive isn't a law so much as a pledge, the task of finding alternative fuels and propulsion technologies falls on individual ports and the complicated structures in which vessels are owned.

"It's just really tricky to find a single point here. What we hope to find is a winning strategy for the principles is to find a single point that cuts through this quite differentiated ownership structure and to the vessel," he said. "It's not deterministic, and we can't forecast what the fuel mix will be, nor is there a single regulatory body that can enforce anything on fuel."

That's not to say there won't be emerging demand for alternative fuels, Blank said. But it may require ships to have more of a flexible fuel technology in the interim. That includes hydrogen.

"Ports can play an interesting role," he said. "You have industry clusters co-located with the port, and you have lots of trucks at the ports. There's a clustering of hydrogen of demand that could be very interesting."

While Bloom looks to the first fuel cell-equipped vessels to leverage existing liquefied natural gas stations at ports worldwide, it's already looking to get hydrogen in the picture. The company announced in mid-July that it would enter the hydrogen market next year, first in South Korea. 

"Today, we have a proven technology that can help shipbuilders with reaching IMO targets on GHG emissions and improve efficiency, all while emitting virtually no NOx and SOx," the company said in a statement. "Looking forward, as nations and ports develop their hydrogen infrastructure, fuel cell-powered ships could transition from utilizing natural gas fuel to hydrogen fuel."

Hydrogen is already becoming a way ports are meeting local goals to cut emissions, but they've mainly been looking to power trucks with the fuel. After some government wrangling, the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach, California, got approval in March to develop a hydrogen plant that first would power heavy-duty trucks supplied by Toyota to pick up deliveries from the ships.

Meanwhile, Bloom already envisions other applications for fuel cell technology on the water. Pande said the cruise liner industry previously had expressed interest, although that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hobbled its business globally. Eventually, however, much smaller vessels could be adapted with fuel cells, she said.

"This is a start for us," Pande said.

Editor's note: This article was updated Aug. 18 to clarify the type of emissions discussed in paragraph six.

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