A fire broke out on the world’s first hydrogen carrier vessel in Australia shortly before it set sail to Japan carrying the world’s first international shipment of liquefied hydrogen (LH2) in January, it has emerged.

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The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the federal agency responsible for investigating air, sea and rail accidents, has launched an investigation into what it has labelled a “serious incident”.

“The ATSB is investigating a gas pressure control equipment malfunction on board the gas carrier Suiso Frontier after the ship had loaded liquefied hydrogen at Western Port, Hastings,” said the agency.

“At 2147 AEST [Australian Eastern Standard Time] on 25 January 2022, a flame was seen coming from the gas combustion unit’s exhaust on deck. The unit was immediately shut down and isolated before the crew implemented the fire prevention response plan.

“No further abnormalities were reported and there were no injuries, damage or pollution.”

The investigation is due to be completed in the third quarter this year, following interviews with “relevant persons”.

“Should a critical safety issue be identified at any time during the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify operators and regulators so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken. A final report will be published at the conclusion of the investigation,” the agency explained.

The Port of Hastings has a hydrogen liquefaction facility and a liquefied hydrogen loading facility, both of which were specifically designed for the Suiso Frontier, the Japanese experimental LH2 carrier built for the $350m international Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain project, which aims to prove it is commercially viable to ship liquefied hydrogen from Australia to Japan.

Local environmental group Save Westernport described the equipment at the port as “one of a number of major hazard facilities in the vicinity” and pointed out that it is “within close range of the residential areas of Hastings”.

“It also concerns us that the safety [incident] onboard Suiso Frontier appears not to have been reported to the public at the time,” Save Westernport campaigner Juila Stockigt told the local newspaper, Western Port News.

Suiso Frontier arrived in Hastings, in the southeastern state of Victoria, on 20 January, before finally departing on 28 January, and arriving in Kobe, Japan, on 25 February, where it unloaded its cargo of liquid hydrogen derived from Australian brown coal.

Multiple reports have emerged in recent months showing that it would be more economic to ship hydrogen in the form of ammonia than as a liquid, which requires cryogenic temperatures of minus 253°C, is harder to transport and contains less H2 by volume than NH3.