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4 October 2019

Samsung pushes oxide fuel cells for Maritime decarbonization

Bloom Energy and Samsung announced a partnership this week, heralding solid-oxide fuel cells as the maritime industry’s long-awaited solution to clean energy, but full decarbonization seems far from their solution.

Currently most ships run on something called “bunker fuel” the particularly noxious remains after the best parts have been removed from crude oil to create gasoline and other plastics and chemicals.

The partnership’s new Aframax design boasts a new electricity generating system, using rare earth materials within fuel-cells but which are essentially powered by natural gas. Fuel cells developed by Bloom have been traditionally used to power buildings and data centers, with natural gas passing through the solid-oxide cells producing energy with what are claimed to be reduced emissions. However, despite Bloom’s protestations of low carbon purity, the dial just went up dramatically on how dirty natural gas is. Recent studies have shown that many extraction techniques, in particular fracking, also release methane from the disturbed ground, making it almost as bad as burning coal. So any technology based on it, has to take that detail into account.

With 80% of the world’s shipping fleet operating on bunker fuel, Bloom and Samsung Heavy Industries (Samsung) claim a stack of such fuel cells may allow a theoretical reduction of 45% in carbon emissions at sea, with a virtual elimination of NOx (Nitrous Oxide) and SOx (Sulphur Oxide) particulates.

The maritime industry is estimated to be responsible for 2-3% of global carbon emissions, and associated particulates attributed with 400,000 annual premature deaths due to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Following this, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has mandated a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050.

Samsung thinks it can drag the market to this approach as it “signals” its approval and that introduction of fuel cells to vessels is “inevitable.” We’re not so sure. Hydrogen fuel cells perhaps, but we have seen on multiuple occasions that if you are going to get to zero carbon, it’s best to get there in one leap in case your stopping off point is actually worse that what it replaces.

The motivation behind Bloom energy’s continued use of LNG products is hardly discouraged, with the Californian outfit receiving over $400million from Californias Self-generated Incentive Program (SGIP). However, critics have argued that while the Bloombox server, may operate at significantly reduced levels of carbon emissions, the extraction process to get natural gas out of the ground, may add in a lot more.

Recent figures issued by the University of Berkley shows that the CO2 emission figures of 773 lbs/MWh for the Bloombox to be a notable underestimate, with experimental values looking closer to 823 lbs/MWh: and neither are significantly lower than conventional LNG power plants (about 1000lbs/MWh). Additionally, as detailed in a previous issue of Rethink Energy, the misinformation surrounding fracking, highlighted by Cornell University and Germany’s Energy Watch Group, may prove that vast volumes of unreported methane are being released in tapping any LNG resources. In this case, it would not be unreasonable for the Bloombox server to turn out less carbon-free than coal.

The Bloombox also claims the ability to be essentially ‘hydrogen-ready’, the length of time before hydrogen becomes abundantly available in a commercial sense remains uncertain, and adaptations to this technology has not been detailed.

The process of decarbonisation will be much more effectively achieved in one efficient leap. As we additionally pointed out a few months ago, hope is not lost for decarbonising the maritime industry, with the Nordic based Zeeds consortium committed to developing ammonia from wind power, as a direct and carbon-free subsitute for Bunker fuel. If ammonia can be produced in abundance, offshore using electrolysis, with electricity from floating wind, this is surely a more rapid and assured route to a zero emission maritime industry.