Developing Green Energy in Maritime Applications with University of Oxford

THRUST and University of Oxford kick-off collaboration to find optimal green fuel and catalyst combinations for maritime applications.

Many global, regional and national initiatives have the ambition to develop critical infrastructure that will help decarbonise the global economy by 2050.[1],[2] Renewable energy will inevitably play a paramount role in the new economy and hydrogen (H2) is widely assumed to be an essential link between renewable generation and utilisation across sectors. The progressive decrease in the cost of electrolysers and increase in carbon taxation may justify large scale H2 production from water in centralised installations. However, H2 cannot be easily stored, transported or distributed from production to demand locations. Alternatively, energy carriers such as ammonia or methanol with roughly comparable energy density like hydrogen can be used in fuel cells or direct combustion to regenerate stored electricity in an environmentally friendly way. For the maritime sector, making such solutions technically feasible and economically viable is of high importance as well given its large energy demands and limited incentives to decarbonise.

Regrettably, where other transportation sectors are organised in such way that specific research is being initiated from within the sector driven by high market potential for large scale dissemination of standardised products, this is not the case for the maritime industry. In aviation, for example, companies Boeing and Airbus are extremely dominant market leaders and with a limited number of airplane types on the market, they both are able to reserve multi-billion Euro annual budgets for tailored research and development (R&D) activities. In the car industry, manufacturers’ best-selling car models are produced from assembly lines at multi-million numbers. Hence, in these sectors  allocating high R&D budgets including low-TRL (fundamental research) trickling down towards universities and research institutes make business sense.

The shipping industry however, finds itself in completely different water. While sharing the global characteristics and high capex with aviation, the industry historically is very fragmentally organised. Construction of almost each ship is a tailor made effort, which is also due to globally varying environmental and operational conditions. These ingredients have resulted in a sector where:

  1. (technology) standardisation is limited; and
  2. clean technologies, green fuel and related infrastructure has to be either globally available or new technologies have to be able to handle different types of fuel solutions and operational profiles.

Sector fragmentation has led to a situation in which limited fundamental research is being initiated and the global aspect of shipping makes stimulation of fundamental research to come to universally applicable solutions crucial if we want to make green energy a real competitor to diesel within the maritime transportation sector.

When THRUST identified this white spot, we contacted Prof. Edman Tsang’s research group of the reputed department of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford University.[3] Together we initiated the research with the above starting points in mind aiming to find optimal solutions for green energy in maritime applications. We jointly developed a scope in which we consider maritime conditions as key inputs. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • high volumetric density requirements;
  • typical environmental conditions such as;
    1. salty and humid conditions
    2. temperature changes
    3. shocks and constantly varying g-forces
  • required global flexibility to be able to handle;
    1. different types and qualitative grades of fuels
    2. very large quantities of fuel

These conditions influence the ideal type of fuel and catalyst to reach the highest and most reliable efficiencies for maritime purpose.

Within this project, the team will assess potential technology pathways for decarbonising the shipping industry through a shift to zero and/or neutral-carbon technologies, based on renewable energy sources. In the next two years, the research team will investigate the conversion of hydrogen contained liquid fuels, having zero or one carbon atom in their chemical formula, delivered to the end point to another form of energy (e.g. hydrogen or electricity), using novel heterogeneous catalysts. The team will also critically assess the current green chemical energy storage technologies in terms of technical feasibility and deployment for maritime applications.

Prof Tsang’s research focuses on both fundamental and applied aspects in Novel Solid State Materials and Heterogeneous Catalysis. The group designs and tests new nano-materials for a wide range of applications, particularly in the areas of energy and environment. Engineering of well-defined active metal sites (sizes ranging from isolated single atoms to few-atom-clusters to nanoparticles) on a solid platform such as zeolites, 2D layered materials, faceted metal oxides and carbon nanotubes, allow the team to carry out catalytic chemical transformations related to biomass conversion to fuels, carbon dioxide activation, capture, storage and subsequent conversion into useful chemicals/materials for reducing carbon emissions, as well as electro- and photo-catalytic processes on activation of H2O and N2.

The outcomes of this project will help accelerate the development of on-scale prototypes that can be tested and piloted as part of the THRUST programme and with key stakeholders such as technology providers, ship builders, shipping companies, energy providers and other knowledge institutes.

Please reach out to us if you want to hear more or if you see any potential to collaborate!

From left to right: Prof. Edman Tsang, programme manager MSc. Tim van Vrijaldenhoven, Dr. Tugce Ayvali and DPhil Simson Wu in front of the department of Inorganic Chemistry. Photo dated October 2nd 2019


[1] Energy Transitions Commission, Mission Possible: Reaching net-zero carbon emissions from harder-to-abate sectors by mid-century, Nov 2018.

[2] European Commission, Energy Roadmap 2050, Dec 2012

[3] Edman Tsang is a professor of Chemistry and Head of Wolfson Catalysis Centre at the University of Oxford, UK. His main research interests are on nanomaterials and catalysis concerning energy and environment which include developments of catalytic, photocatalytic and electrocatalytic technologies for fine chemicals, cleaner combustion, green chemistry, energy storages, processes and production, etc. He has about 350 referred research publications including Nature, Science and Nature sister journals. He has won a number of international awards/recognitions and serves as international panel member for a number of research councils and industries worldwide.

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