Scotland Hydrogen Powered Ships

A tiny ferry for Orkney has been designed as part of an initiative to advance Scotland’s position as a leader in zero-emission hydrogen technology. But will it happen?


The word “ferries” has recently taken on a negative connotation in Scotland. News headlines frequently mention a fleet becoming more unreliable and significant cost overruns and delays in constructing new ships. At the same time, a diverse coalition of organizations, businesses, and academics from Scotland and around Europe have been discreetly collaborating on a much more positive future vision. Since hydrogen is a fuel that only produces water safe to drink as a byproduct, it has been tested to see if it is feasible to carry people and vehicles over lochs and seas using this fuel.

The project’s most recent iteration, HySeas III, has a very particular objective: to construct a tiny, double-ended vessel to carry people and vehicles on a 25-minute journey between Kirkwall and Shapinsay in Orkney. Orkney was selected for a purpose. The Scottish Island community is a global leader in developing a hydrogen economy. It is located just to the north of the mainland.

The island’s pioneering use of hydrogen electricity

Although the islands have significantly more wind and tidal energy than they require for household electrical use, the National Grid occasionally cannot handle the excess. The wind turbines are used for electrolysis, separating water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, rather than being temporarily turned off. A device known as a hydrogen fuel cell can generate energy when needed utilizing that “green hydrogen.” A small fleet of council vans, a building’s heating system, and ships docked in Kirkwall harbor are already powered by fuel cells. The logical next step for a community that travels so much by sea is ferries.

Obstacles and Alternatives

First, there have been issues with technology and decision-making. Hydrogen can be burnt directly in an internal combustion engine or combined with other fuels to produce much less carbon dioxide when burned this way. However, using that procedure produces dangerous pollutants like NOx and SOx, nitrogen, and Sulphur oxides. Instead, the HySeas project opted for significantly more environmentally friendly fuel cell technology, which uses hydrogen to produce electricity for electric power motors.

Other potential fuels

Hydrogen is not the only option when deciding how to steer ships toward a future with no emissions. More and more frequently, ferries run entirely on batteries, particularly in Scandinavia. Meet the pioneers of the electric ferry, plug in and sail. Seven new small vessels for Scotland’s west coast ferry operator CalMac are now being developed and are anticipated to be battery-powered. All-electric boats are considered most suitable for shorter trips or routes where recharging time isn’t a significant concern. The marine sector also considers ammonia or methanol fuel for the most extended voyages because they are simpler to store. There may be more than one technology that might help us steer toward a greener future.

Losing Popularity

A few years ago, it appeared like the Orkney boat might be the first hydrogen-powered ferry in the world, but, much like the race to the South Pole in the early 20th century, the Norwegians will undoubtedly take the honor. The primary design partner for HySeas III, the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, went into administration and was nationalized in 2019, which significantly impacted project finance and generated a backlog of documentation. The design task was taken up by the Scottish government’s ferry agency, CMAL, who started the procedure from fresh. A vessel called Hydra, measuring 82 meters (269 feet) long, has been delivered to the Norwegian ferry company Norled. Later this year, Hydra is expected to become the first hydrogen-powered ferry in the world.

Although Hydra has fuel cells, it is now functioning on batteries because there is a lack of locally manufactured hydrogen. To import it from Germany, the logistics are now being finalized. The Orkney ferry would be exceptional as a paradigm of sustainability – locally produced hydrogen powering a vessel without the emissions that occur from transferring fuel over great distances – even though it might not be the first hydrogen ferry in the world.

It’s Not Cheap

Cost is another concern. It costs money to save the earth. The cost of renewable electricity, which is currently more expensive than non-renewable power, is correlated with the price of green hydrogen, which is created by electrolysis. Although some experts believe that when more wind energy and electrolysis become available, sustainable hydrogen will eventually become more affordable than fossil fuels, it currently costs approximately twice as much as diesel. Making enough of it is another difficulty. Orkney’s hydrogen infrastructure is absent from Scotland’s west coast, and installing it would cost millions of pounds.

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