HomeInsightsFuel Cells as Renewable Power Can Defeat Climate Change?

Fuel Cells as Renewable Power Can Defeat Climate Change?

Global warming is accelerating, survival deadlines

While the coronavirus pandemic has forced greenhouse gas emission to plummet due to the world locked down, such drops will not help slow global climate change unless societies dramatically shy away fossil fuels. Only when the world can make a significant switch to green energies will the world witness climate change being alleviated.

Global warming is not a future problem and we can pass the burden onto future generations since the world’s leading meteorologists and scientists warn that we just five years(2025) away from losing our last chance to control our future and prevent human extinction, which means 2025 target will require us to reduce gross global fossil use by 75%. 

Unless we meet the 2025 targets, we won’t able to stop the breakdown of world agriculture, and civilization. Unfortunately, we are far left behind in mitigating global warming.

Almost half fuel savings in land transport will be undone by planes and ships

ⓒShipping emissions are totally unregulated

The sharp increases in short-lived pollutants, powerful climate forces, due to a surge in the number of LNG-propelled Ships


The GHG emissions of shipping have increased by about 10% from 2012 to 2018 even though the carbon intensity of shipping has improved around 11 % in the same period, which means a 40% growth in seaborne trade was larger than the efficiency achievement. Improvements in technical efficiencies alone will not be enough to meet the IMO’s GHG reduction goal.

Moreover, the sharp increases in short-lived pollutants, which are powerful climate factors remaining in the atmosphere a shorter period than carbon dioxide but increase still the temperature of the atmosphere much greater, should not be overlooked. As the short-lived pollutants, including carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbon, are the most significant contributors to global warming, which are currently responsible for about 45% of it, action to reduce emissions from these pollutants needs to be taken in the coming decades, or, otherwise, they might account for as much as half of global warming.

According to the final report of the Fourth IMO Greenhouse Gas Study, it is reported that black carbon emissions increase by 12%, and methane emissions strikingly increase by about 150% from 2010 to 2018. The increase in methane emissions, which is considered second to CO2 in climate change but traps atmospheric heat about 84 times as much as CO2, is mostly attributed to a surge in the number of vessels fuelled by LNG since most of LNG propelled vessels release unburned methane into the atmosphere. The report underscores the need to regulate methane as the IMO’s Energy Efficiency Design Index(EEDI) but only carbon dioxide emissions are controlled under the EEDI.

IMO agreed last year to reduce black carbon emitted from ships. Black carbon, known as a dark particle absorbing sunlight and heat, is not only contributing to global warming but to heart and lung diseases. Compared to other pollutants, reducing black carbon emissions has immediate effects on the climate since it is remaining in the atmosphere for only a few days or weeks. Using distillate fuels, not heavy fuel oil (HFO), such as LNG, biodiesel, and methanol could reduce black carbon emissions from ships. And ships can also remove black carbon from the exhaust using particulate filters (DPFs) or electrostatic precipitators (ESPs). Nonetheless, these are not a complete solution to global warming in the long term as these are fuels that still release pollutants contributing to global warming anyway and only measures to mitigate it in the short term.

CO 2 emissions during hydrogen production from different energy sources.

ⓒ PhD. Mehmet Fatih Orhan, American University of Sharjah

Hydrogen & Ammonia: carbon emitter or clean fuel provider?

Alternative fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia are considered as zero-carbon ones with the advancement of clean energy technologies. Ammonia, made up of three hydrogen atoms bonded to a single nitrogen atom (NH₃), is studied as a potential green energy source similar to hydrogen. Ammonia’s process of production, called the Haber-Bosch process, has poured CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

Ammonia synthesis using Haber-Bosch also involves combining hydrogen and nitrogen gas over an iron catalyst at high temperatures and pressures, which is not efficient wasting a lot of energy for ammonia production. Therefore, while switching to energy sources can be a good solution in the short term combining current renewable energy technology, improving the sustainability of ammonia synthesis at low temperatures and atmospheric pressure over the long term is challenging.

Scientists have strived to find efficient catalysts that work at lower temperatures looking at alternatives to Haber-Bosch, whether it is electrocatalysis, photocatalysis, or biocatalysis, but it will take at least a decade to commercialize it on large scales.  


Hydrogen, consisting of only one proton and one electron, is generated with a fuel cell, which is a device that combines oxygen with hydrogen to generate electricity and heat as hydrogen doesn’t exist as a gas in the natural state and always combines with other elements like water (H2O).

Hydrogen fuel cells power vehicles producing a clean byproduct, pure water. They don not run down as long as the hydrogen battery is supplied with hydrogen, meaning they are more reliable more energy efficient in comparison to the combustion engines.

However, the most common production method extracting hydrogen is exclusively from fossil fuels, which is called ‘black hydrogen’ production, far from a low carbon way of producing it. To extract hydrogen in environmentally friendly is using electrolysis, passing electricity through water, without generating the unwanted carbon emissions.

But this process is much more expensive than processing natural gas and requires something to power the electricity used it, which means burning more fossil fuels anyway. If managing to move away from reliance on natural gas production to extract its hydrogen and produce it in a renewable way, hydrogen power solves maladies for the future.


The feasibility of Hydrogen fuel cells for commercial ships

Under the pressure of cutting emissions in shipping, a Korean major name, Samsung Heavy Industries, is in cooperation with a fuel cell enterprise, Bloom Energy, to develop more sustainable fuel cells for shipping. Samsung is aiming to the first shipbuilder to put out a cargo ship running on fuel cells powered by natural gas. Bloom Energy is entering the commercial hydrogen market with new electrolyzers and fuel cells. However, there are costs and technical barriers that companies cannot overcome to make completely clean hydrogen energy a reality.

The best scenario is to produce hydrogen fuel using electricity from renewable wind and solar energy power and electrolysis, which is putting an electrical charge into water to break H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, the reversion reaction taking place in the fuel cell. Still, few energy innovations have an opportunity to flip over the entire energy industry, but if any could make wind and solar more feasible as all year-round energy sources, hydrogen could be used to make shipping entirely clean, replacing fossil fuels.

If Bloom Energy can build an economically, technologically feasible electrolyzer and a fuel cell, the world witnesses the energy industry upended. Nations also need to develop their hydrogen infrastructure for the future transition from natural gas fuel cell-powered ships to hydrogen fuel cell-powered ships.

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