Hydrogen: Clean Burning, But Robust Safety Requirements Are Needed


  • Made with renewable energy, green hydrogen offers shipping a pathway to net-zero, but its high flammability and colorless and odorless nature requires a strong safety regime.
  • Hydrogen’s high energy content per unit mass makes it a promising alternative to traditional marine fuels. It can be used as an energy source in fuel cells to generate electricity, or directly as a fuel in internal combustion engines.

Global shipping is under increasing regulatory and societal pressure to reduce its environmental footprint, and the industry’s reliance on heavy fuel oil not only contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but also releases other harmful pollutants, such as sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, impacting the environment and human health, reports Riviera Maritime Media.

As international regulatory bodies and governments seek to implement stricter emission standards, the shipping industry faces the challenge of finding viable, sustainable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is emerging as a viable contender. Green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy, offers a pathway to significantly reduce emissions in the shipping sector. Unlike conventional marine fuels, hydrogen does not emit carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, or nitrogen oxides when used. This makes it an attractive option for an industry seeking to align with global environmental goals.

Hydrogen’s high energy content per unit mass makes it a promising alternative to traditional marine fuels. It can be used as an energy source in fuel cells to generate electricity, or directly as a fuel in internal combustion engines.

However, integrating hydrogen into the maritime sector is not without challenges. Issues such as hydrogen production, storage, and distribution need to be addressed to make this a viable and scalable solution for the industry.

Training and handling

As always, the human element in the transition to hydrogen will play a key role for owners when considering a change. Workforce training for new technologies and safety protocols for handling hydrogen, which poses unique risks compared to traditional fuels, are critical areas that need attention. Currently, the maritime industry lacks comprehensive regulations specific to hydrogen-powered vessels. The development of international standards and guidelines for the design, construction, and operation of these vessels is crucial to ensure safety and efficiency in their operation.

Hydrogen, despite its potential as a clean energy source, poses unique dangers that must be carefully managed, especially in the maritime shipping context. The primary risks associated with hydrogen stem from its physical and chemical properties. Hydrogen is highly flammable, with a wide range of flammable concentrations in air. It also has a low ignition energy, meaning that it can ignite with much less energy than fuels like gasoline or diesel.

Additionally, hydrogen is colourless and odourless, making leaks difficult to detect without specialised equipment, so the industry must develop robust risk assessments and safety protocols to protect crew, port personnel, and the environment. Specialist training courses for both marine and shore-based personnel are essential.

Another significant concern with hydrogen is its tendency to embrittle metals, a phenomenon where metals become more brittle and more prone to cracking under stress. This is particularly concerning in the construction of ships and storage facilities where structural integrity is paramount. In its liquid form, hydrogen is extremely cold, requiring cryogenic storage and handling procedures. This adds another layer of complexity and risk, as cryogenic substances can cause severe cold burns on contact with skin and pose hazards to materials not designed for such low temperatures.

Given these dangers, comprehensive training and preparedness are vital for safely integrating hydrogen into maritime shipping. The focus of training should be on ensuring that all personnel, both onboard and ashore, involved in the handling, storage and use of hydrogen are thoroughly educated on its properties and the associated risks. This includes understanding the correct procedures for detecting and responding to hydrogen leaks, fire prevention and firefighting techniques specific to hydrogen fires, and emergency response protocols.

Training should also cover the safe operation of hydrogen-fuelled engines and fuel cells, including start-up and shut-down procedures, maintenance, and troubleshooting. Additionally, crews need to be familiar with the proper use and maintenance of protective equipment and safety systems designed to mitigate the risks associated with hydrogen.
The development of specialised training programmes and certifications for hydrogen safety will likely be necessary. These programmes should be developed in collaboration with industry experts, safety regulators, and educational institutions to ensure they are comprehensive and up to date. As with the current IGF code training requirements (for vessels using gasses or low flashpoint fuels), regular drills and exercises should also be conducted to keep skills sharp and ensure readiness for any emergencies.

Furthermore, as hydrogen technology evolves, continuous learning and adaptation of training programmes will be essential. Keeping abreast of technological advancements and incorporating new safety practices will be crucial for maintaining a high standard of safety in the industry.

Hydrogen-powered vessels

Globally, several countries are pioneering the integration of hydrogen into their maritime sectors. Norway, for example, has been at the forefront, investing in hydrogen-powered ferries and coastal shipping vessels. These efforts reflect a broader commitment to sustainability and reducing maritime emissions. Similarly, the Netherlands has been active in developing hydrogen infrastructure and technology, with projects aimed at integrating hydrogen fuel cells into shipping.

These case studies provide valuable insights into the practicalities and challenges of adopting hydrogen in maritime shipping. They highlight the technological advancements made and the collaborative efforts needed between governments, industry, and research institutions, and these experiences will serve as models for others looking to embark on a similar path.

Looking ahead, the future of hydrogen in maritime shipping hinges on global collaboration and investment. Developing a robust hydrogen infrastructure requires concerted efforts from governments, industry players, and international organisations. A human-centric approach, focusing on job creation, health benefits, and social impact, is essential to ensure that the transition to hydrogen not only addresses environmental concerns but also contributes positively to communities and economies.

Strategic investments in R&D, along with supportive policies and incentives, are key to driving innovation in this space. Moreover, fostering international co-operation to standardize regulations and share best practices will be crucial for the global adoption of hydrogen in shipping.

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Source: Riviera Maritime Media