e4ships – Heavy Fuel Oil Is a Thing of the Past

Bernard Meyer

The transportation sector is moving forward again: After a years-long debate and much reporting about fuel cell use in passenger cars, a breath of new life has been given to maritime, railroad and aviation applications. Especially many of the stakeholders in the maritime industry see great market potential for fuel cell units, as environmental regulations are gradually putting pressure on the oft-used diesel technology.

“We need a transformation.” These were the words used by Winfried Hermann, transportation minister of the state of Baden-Württemberg, during the WES conference to stress that there needs to be a change in both the energy and the transportation sector – not only on the road, but across all segments.


The first fuel cell cars and buses have already made it onto the roads. The situation is much different in aviation. Hydrogen used by airlines in big passenger machines is likely to remain just an idea in people’s heads for a long time to come; attempts to turn zero-emission, fuel cell air travel into a reality have so far been restricted to regional projects (see Fuel Cell Passenger Aircraft for Medium-Distance Flights). The attempts in the railroad industry are similarly timid, although big corporations have at least publicly announced their unwavering commitment to demonstration projects after years of stagnation (e.g. in Hesse and Lower Saxony; see Hydrogenics, Alstom and H2 Trains).

Meagre results after seven years

The shipbuilding industry has seen a much firmer pledge to fuel cell systems over past years, but accomplishments have been equally few. The NIP showcase project e4ships that was to test fuel cells in the maritime industry has run for seven years. However, veritable attempts at sea or even meaningful results on which to base further research have yet to materialize.

The start of e4ships was July 1, 2009 (see HZwei issue from October 2009) on the steamer AIDAluna in Rostock-Warnemünde, Germany. Back then, it was the third showcase project after the Clean Energy Partnership and Callux under the auspices of the National Innovation Program Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technology (NIP 1.0), with 22 project partners. Then as now, Bernard Meyer, managing director of Meyer Werft, is telling the story of his great ancestor and how he successfully managed the transition from wood to iron ships (see box).

In those days, an opponent of the transition from wood to metal grabbed an iron bar, threw it into the water and asked in an angry voice: “And that’s what you want to build ships with?” Meyer’s great grandson can at least now provide the answer to that provocative question, as Meyer Werft is the only one of 20 shipyards in Papenburg to have existed from 1920 until today.

What is left of four subprojects

Three of the previously four subprojects remain. HyFerry, which was to ensure propulsion of a North Sea ferry by fuel cell and to which almost half (EUR 24.9 million) of the e4ships budget had been allocated, was terminated early. NOW’s chair, Klaus Bonhoff, explained that the decision to discontinue the program was made by the industry. The reason for the early end was that one participating company went bankrupt – for “non-technical reasons,” he stressed.

The other subprojects are still running. One of them, Toplaterne, is primarily focused on the definition and specification of rules and standards and has a budget of EUR 1.2 million (48 percent funding rate).

Enormous delays

Pa-X-ell (initial budget: EUR 13.8 million; increased to EUR 24 million) deals with the onboard energy supply of cruise ships. The aim is to integrate about half a dozen of these methanol-run units in a decentralized way into a passenger ship, so that the different fire zones can be supplied separately with clean power and heat – even at the port, to reduce not only emissions, but also dockage fees.

The first stage of Pa-X-ell was scheduled to end in 2012 and include the development and testing of a 500 kW fuel cell module under real-life conditions. This objective has, in fact, never been achieved until today, even if it was said at the final conference in Hamburg (see below): “The use of fuel cells on ships has been successfully demonstrated.” The main problem was that the Tognum Group (formerly, MTU Friedrichshafen), which had intended to provide their HotModules as central energy supply units for the project, had left the fuel cell industry at the end of 2010. FuelCell Energy did acquire some of the company’s know-how in 2012, but the module based on molten carbonate was no longer available. The entire e4ships strategy had to be revised.

Consequently, the output target was lowered to a significant extent and Serenergy became the new partner in the consortium. Several 5 kWel high-temperature PEM fuel cells manufactured by the Danish company were connected to build a 30 kW prototype and test it in stationary use on land. Meyer: “A demonstration system set up a while ago on the premises of Meyer Werft has been used for initial tests of reliability and aptitude regarding maritime applications. The first test at sea was conducted with a 90 kW system installed in addition to conventional energy supply on board the ferry MS Mariella, which runs between cities in Scandinavia.” Its installation took place in summer last year.

In subproject SchIBZ, which had EUR 10.5 million allocated for testing fuel cell systems on yachts, but will ultimately have EUR 13.7 million available, a solid oxide fuel cell by sunfire was chosen as an alternative to the HotModule. The project team had originally favored an SOFC module by Topsoe Fuel Cell, but the Danish business owned by the Topsoe Group was closed down in 2014. Keno Leites, project manager at ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, explained: “The focus is on developing a diesel-run, hybrid fuel cell system with a scalable output of 100 to 500 kW for seafaring vessels. To see how well the system works in practice, we built a 50 kW container unit that is being tested on the MS Forester to supply energy to the onboard system under real operating conditions at sea. The fuel used is low-sulfur diesel. The medium-term goal is to use natural gas as an alternative energy source.” When asked by H2-international, however, Leites acknowledged that there had been no “experiences made at sea” with the technology at the time of the conference (see also HZwei issue from October 2014).

Final conference in Hamburg

The consortium members, whose number has meanwhile increased to 18, informed about the activities and accomplishments of the past seven years on Sept. 7, 2016, in Hamburg. At the same time the International Maritime Trade Fair took place, 80 attendees met for the closing conference of the project. They deemed the result a positive one, although the aforementioned delays had meant that fewer targets could be met than originally planned during the program run (April 1, 2009, through Dec. 31, 2016).

An important success, however, may have been achieved in the area of regulations. For example, there was an information exchange and a close collaboration with the U.N. International Maritime Organization. Reinhard Lüken, managing director of the German Shipbuilding and Ocean Industries Association, explained: “Shipbuilding and transport are highly regulated around the globe. The results of e4ships have now been incorporated successfully into the relevant IMO instruments. This creates a cross-national foundation for the commercial use of fuel cells.”

Switch to LNG

Ship owners, however, are much more focused on liquid natural gas than on hydrogen. The Maritime Environment division of the IMO decided on Oct. 28, 2016, to ban fuels containing more than 0.5 percent sulfur globally from 2020. At high sea, ship operators have so far been allowed to burn sources containing 3.5 percent of sulfur. The permitted maximum is even lower regarding the North and Baltic Sea: Since the start of 2015, the sulfur content has had to be 0.1 percent or below. Faced with IMO’s decision, Ralf Nagel from the German Shipowners’ Association said to Süddeutsche Zeitung: “This decision basically marks the end of today’s era of heavy fuel oil in maritime application. […] The new limit on sulfur content will advance the clean liquid gas LNG and alternative fuels in maritime propulsion.”

Fittingly, Meyer announced that his company “is building seven ships running on LNG.” He added: “Heavy fuel oil is a thing of the past.” State transportation minister Hermann had already pointed to the existing LNG terminal in Rotterdam during the World of Energy Solutions in early October 2016 and remarked that shipping companies would switch to liquid natural gas within the next thirty years, as it did not contain sulfur, which made for a cleaner combustion process.

Gerd-Michael Würsig, e4ships spokesperson, sees other potential alternatives for ship propulsion in methanol, low-flashpoint diesel and also hydrogen, although the latter would only be suitable for smaller ships, if at all.

The government’s bible

All parties agreed that e4ships should continue during NIP 2.0. Achim Wehrmann from the federal transportation ministry used the opportunity to state that “the coalition agreement is something like the government’s bible.” In light of the general election this fall, it was important to incorporate the issue of “maritime fuel cells” into the next agreement as well.

“In contrast to battery cells, fuel cells give us the opportunity to become a manufacturing force that is to be reckoned with.”

Klaus Bonhoff

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