A hydrogen-powered autonomous ship could help decarbonize maritime transport

The ship could be ready by the autumn of 2024.
Ameya Paleja
The hydrogen powered uncrewed surface vessel
The hydrogen powered uncrewed surface vessel

Acua Ocean 

A consortium of companies in the U.K. has bagged a GBP 5.4 million (US$ 6.46) government grant to build the world's first liquid hydrogen-powered autonomous vessel and its allied infrastructure, a press release said. The grant is aimed at helping decarbonize the maritime sector.

With governments keen on meeting the 'net-zero' goals, a flurry of changes is being brought to the transportation industry. In the U.S., a roll-out of the national charger network is being planned, while the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is being encouraged, while the sale of combustion engines is even being banned in some nations.

Amidst all this, the maritime sector, consisting of heavy vessels that travel long distances and account for three percent of global emissions, has been overlooked for want of a reliable solution to address the challenges. The U.K.'s Department of Transport (DOT) has been running the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition (CMDC) to deliver real-world demonstration projects in clean maritime solutions, the press release said.

The liquid hydrogen autonomous vessel

The autonomous vessel is being developed by London, headquartered in Acua Ocean, which specializes in hydrogen-powered uncrewed surface vessels (H-USV). According to its website, the H-USV has a payload capacity of nearly 4.5 tonnes (4,500 kg) and travels at four knots.

While this might sound slow, the ship's design ensures that its fuel capacity gives it an endurance of at least 40 days. Using hydrogen as fuel means that emissions can be reduced by 99 percent.

The vessel is entirely autonomous and uses its onboard environmental and commercial sensors to make decisions on the edge and in real-time. Since there is no crew for these vessels and systems are monitored 24/7, turnaround times are minimal after a trip, the website claims.

Leceister-based Unitrove will provide the necessary infrastructure for these vessels to develop a green shipping corridor between Aberdeen in Scotland and Orkney and the Shetland Islands, six miles (~9.6 km) off the Scottish mainland. Other consortium members are the Port of Aberdeen, the University of Southampton, and maritime and zero-emission transportation organizations.

"We are delighted to be part of this transformational project, which is wholly in alignment with our green ambitions and that of the wider project team," said Marlene Mitchell, Commercial Manager of Port of Aberdeen. "Zero-emission fuels and vessels are an essential element in achieving decarbonization within the maritime sector, and green shipping corridors will play a key element in meeting the sector’s goals."

The project is scheduled for delivery in the autumn of 2024. However, it will also require other projects to go greener to succeed. Hydrogen production in the U.K. is currently done from natural gas, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide, The Telegraph reported. Efforts are underway to capture the carbon released during the process or by using water as a source instead of natural gas.

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