The Viking Energy, an offshore supply vessel (OSV) being used by oil major Equinor off Norway, could spur development of ammonia-powered fuel cells for deep-sea shipping and construction, via a new European R&D project set to use the Eidesvik-owned SOV in key sea-trials.

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Under the EU-funded ShipFC pilot, the Eidesvik-owned vessel is being fitted with a 2MW fuel cell that will make it possible for it to operate emissions-free for 3,000 hours a year, with a 20MW version for larger oceangoing vessels to follow.

“The ultimate goal of the project is to demonstrate the feasibility of ammonia fuel cells for oceangoing vessels and long sea voyages,” said Michail Cheliotis, research associate at the University of Strathclyde, which is leading the project. “Once the first phase of the project is completed, that’s when the fun starts.”

The ShipFC project will examine three ‘replicator’ vessel types for ammonia-powered fuel cell engines based on the Viking Energy, including a bulk carrier, an offshore construction vessel, and a container ship, provided by StarBulk Management, North Sea Shipping and Capital Ship Management, respectively.

“The huge difference in scope makes ShipFC much more interesting than just a replication of Viking Energy,” he added. “The similarities basically end with ammonia, because a 20MW power plant requires significantly different treatment.”

Technical and economic insights gleaned from the Viking Energy pilot will be woven into a wider analysis of ammonia in the maritime sector and comparison with other alternative fuels.

Though ammonia presents “certain technical challenges” created by its corrosiveness, Cheliotis said the safety trade-off contrasted to hydrogen “favours ammonia”.

“It is less explosive, requires less complex storage and transport solutions, and it is a well-known commodity from industry. Based on this experience, the necessary safeguards can be built in,” he said, adding that “experience with gas fuels will be a significant building block”.

“We have seen that liquid ammonia is similar to liquefied gas in the handling process. Industry has a high level of maturity and an excellent track record in handling LNG [liquid natural gas] and this experience is proof that it can be done safely.”

Cheliotis added: “Ammonia can easily be made from renewable resources, making it one of the fuels that will likely meet part of shipping’s future green energy demand.”

The ShipFC project will also delve into the ammonia supply chain, looking at its industrial life-cycle stages from production to transport and bunkering.

Ammonia for fuel cells can be produced with a green profile, Cheliotis explains, giving ammonia a positive overall environmental footprint: “Ammonia can easily be made from renewable resources, making it one of the fuels that will likely meet part of shipping’s future green energy demand.”

Cheliotis said the “time is right” for the project. “People are ready to listen to arguments for fuel cells. The technology is becoming more common, and stories of success from other projects in road and rail are getting attention. Now we want to take advantage of fuel cell momentum and examine the use of ammonia in addition to hydrogen.”

Solving the ammonia fuel cell equation for deepsea shipping is “a step in the right direction” for pushing ahead with progress in decarbonisation of the offshore energy sector, Cheliotis said. “We will need many solutions to meet diverse needs in the maritime industry, and fuel cells powered by ammonia can be among them.”