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7 June 2019

Windfarms power Ammonia production, for carbon-less ship fuel

We hear more this week about the Zeeds Consortium we introduced last week, which plans to cut emissions from ocean going ships by addressing the supply, storage and distribution chain of ship fuels. Zeeds stands for Zero Emission Energy Distribution at Sea.

As we pointed out last week this currently involves six Nordic firms led by Wärtsilä, a specialist in smart technologies for the marine and energy markets and including engineering firm Aker Solutions; Equinor, a Norwegian energy multinational; DFDS, an international shipping and logistics firm, and Grieg Star, ship operating company as well as Kvaerner in engineering and construction.

This is all about good old NH3 or Ammonia, which it turns out can be used as a substitute for Bunker fuel. Deepsea cargo ships typically burn the heavy, residual oil left over after gasoline, diesel and other light hydrocarbons are extracted from crude oil during the refining process, and this is called Bunker fuel. There are about 200 ports which hold this stuff all over the world, and this Nordic enterprise is really about starting this in Northern Europe competing with bunker fuel held at places like Amsterdam, Antwerp, Gdansk, Gothenburg, Rotterdam, St. Petersburg and Tallinn.

Instead of making Ammonia the old way, the Hydrogen is created from water using electrolysis driven by a purpose built offshore wind farm created entirely for the purpose. This can be floating or fixed bottom and needs about 75 large turbines. This also provides energy for heating the mixture of hydrogen and nitrogen in a catalysis chamber.

This vision for bunker fuel was presented at the Horizons conference and workshop in Oslo on Monday and again at the Nor-Shipping Ocean Leadership meeting Tuesday.

Zeeds says that they are eager to plug any expertise gap they have by pulling in new partners from anywhere in the value chain; industrials; politicians, academics and of course financing institutions to fund the entire process.

When it is used in this way ammonia turns back into air and water, so doesn’t pollute the atmosphere and ammonia can even be made to clean up after itself by ‘scrubbing’ away nitrogen oxides left after combustion. Ammonia is far easier to store than Hydrogen and since there are already millions of tons of it made every year, handling and storing it is already well understood and it is as safe as storing Liquified Petroleum Gas (calor gas). You can apparently even run a car on ammonia, although today its main use is for making fertilizer. Ammonia can also be burned to make thermal electricity so any excess could be exported for electricity generation.

Zeeds says that this form of green ammonia can support the business case for renewables, by providing an alternative revenue stream that is not dependent

on a grid connection, and since it is fueled it can be used for load-balancing. Existing grids need load balancing by converting the electricity into ammonia and then burning it, using existing steam turbines. So this provides an alternative way of harnessing solar and wind energy.

The concept envisages an “ecosystem” of offshore clean energy hubs strategically located close to Northern Europe’s busiest shipping corridors capable of producing, storing and distributing renewable fuels to vessels in transit.

“Fuel stations placed in high traffic areas such as outside Bornholm or in Skagerak (this is deep so it would need floating turbines) would become the infrastructure,” says Kvaerner’s Kenneth Simonsen, senior vice-president Strategy and M&A. It could of course be scaled up to serve global trade lanes supplying the world fleet. The vision was to look beyond just ships, says Wartsila’s Andrea Morgante, vice president, Strategy and Business Development. “We realized there was a lot of value to be captured in the logistics chain.”

The hubs are designed as gravity-based structures in shallow regions and potentially semi-submersible floaters in deeper water, with the bunkering buoys either cemented to the seabed or floating in deep water. Clean energy for topside fuel production would be supplied by around 75 big wind turbines per hub. Solar (we assume floating) and wave technologies are also potentially available in the push to harness energy from the ocean in future versions of this.

Zeeds says that this green ammonia can be used on existing LNG-powered vessels without major modifications. But Margaret Mistry, Strategy & Innovation Manager at Equinor, emphasizes the concept is “fuel agnostic”. Multiple fuels including hydrogen could also be offered in this way. Storage for ammonia is either internal or in seabed tanks using water pressure to keep the fuel liquid. Data calculations show each hub could potentially produce enough ammonia to supply 65 vessels a day. Hydrogen production and storage could be accommodated on an under-deck of the installations.

Distribution is based on ship-to-ship bunkering at sea which eliminates the need for clean-powered vessels to make frequent shore deviations to refuel, which will in turn minimize downtime and port congestion.

This type of bunkering would be performed by autonomous units dubbed energy providing vessels, powered by offtake from their own cargo and with a range of 50 nautical miles around the mother hubs. The full ship to ship transfer is designed take two hours with both vessels travelling at six knots side by side, a process already proven even in high seas.

Drones airlift a pilot cable from the EPV to enable the bunkering hose to be reeled in and mated on the receiving unit. Each transfer is estimated to provide enough fuel for five days operation for a ship in a typical North Sea trade, says Wärtsilä’s Egil Hystad, general manager of concept development.

Our first reaction having this fully explained is that this is a genuinely cool concept, but of course, price will be the key ingredient that decides if it takes off or not. But this will kill off 2.6% of global CO2 emissions if it works and is fully embraced. The Bunker fuel market is currently around $140 billion globally and rising a few percentage points a year.

The entire scheme applies known technologies combined in new ways in a new environment, says Kvaerner’s Simonsen. These need to be adapted to be fit for purpose. “It’s important for us to bring in new competence for example in ammonia and hydrogen production,” he says. The project has been under development for 18 months and is still looking for funding. We suggest that if the financials stack up, they should have no problem at all although this has to be all or nothing, and not just part of it.

We have always believed that this is key to the future global economy and its growth. More or less everything manufactured these days is transported from Taiwan or China, and that journey can be halfway around the world and back. Go back 100 years, and manufacturing was largely local, go back 50 years and it was within national boundaries. It is only the advent of the World Trade Organization with its aims to take friction out of global trade, that made such journeys possible, allowing China with its cheap educated labor market, to take a significant amount of manufacturing business. This is an area that will expand, and to bring it to zero carbon as swiftly as possible would be a significant achievement and probably make them a lot of money.