The world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier, built to ship large quantities cryogenically frozen H2 internationally, was launched by Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) on Wednesday.

The Suiso Frontier (‘suiso’ means ‘hydrogen’ in Japanese) will play a key role in the Shell-backed HySTRA demonstration project (CO2-free Hydrogen Energy Supply-Chain Technology Research Association), which will see large quantities of H2 produced from brown coal in Australia and then shipped 9,000km to the city of Kobe in Japan.

The vessel’s vacuum-insulated hydrogen storage tank — which is currently being constructed by Harima Works and will be installed by late 2020 — will be able to transport 1,250 square metres of liquefied hydrogen (LH2) at temperatures of minus 253°C. The liquefaction process reduces the volume of hydrogen gas by a factor of 800.

The technology is similar to that of liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, with KHI building the first Asian LNG vessel in 1981.

Hydrogen is a clean-burning gas that can be used for energy storage, heat, transport and industrial processes, and is increasingly being seen as having a major role in the decarbonisation of the energy sector.

But hydrogen does not occur in its pure form in nature, so it has to be extracted from hydrogen-rich substances. To date, due to favourable economics, it has mainly been produced from natural gas or coal — processes that emit nine to 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of H2 produced.

To be considered a clean fuel, the hydrogen must be produced via electrolysis (splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen with an electric current) using renewable energy — creating so-called “green hydrogen”; or via fossil fuels with the CO2 captured and stored — known as “blue hydrogen” — although current commercialised processes are said to be unable to capture more than 95% of the emitted carbon.

The HySTRA project will see low-calorie, moisture-rich brown coal “gasified” — by mixing it with oxygen and steam under high pressures — at an under-construction facility in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria state, southeast Australia. This process creates a synthetic gas consisting mainly of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen, which are then separated. The two compounds in this “syngas” are then separated by a membrane, with the hydrogen captured and stored and the CO released into the air, where it naturally combines with oxygen atoms to become carbon dioxide. (The bulk of this carbon could be captured and stored, but the project does not currently aim to do so, despite the “CO2-free” in its name.)

The hydrogen gas will then be transported in trucks to the nearby port of Hastings, where it will be liquefied and loaded onto the Suiso Frontier, before being shipped to an under-construction unloading terminal in Kobe.

As Japan has little available land for onshore wind and solar farms, the country is planning to develop a "hydrogen economy", with huge volumes of clean H2 imported.

The partners in the HySTRA project are KHI, oil giant Shell, Tokyo-based utility J-Power, gas company Iwatani, trader Marubeni, and JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy Corporation, with support coming from Japanese R&D body Nedo (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization).