Belgian port has high climate hopes for ‘test’ hydrogen tugboat

Hydrogen seen as the molecule of the future if the cost is right

Hydrotug 1, the world's first hydrogen tugboat. Photo: Port of Antwerp Bruges
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One of Belgium's largest carbon dioxide emitters, the port of Antwerp-Bruges, has started to test alternative fuels for its own sprawling fleet.

European laws are being introduced that require the maritime sector to cut emissions by at least 55 per cent over the next decade.

The EU's green transition has raised more questions than answers for many in Europe's maritime industry, with some relying on hydrogen while others prefer methanol as they move away from fossil fuels.

The second busiest port in Europe has adopted a strategy to diversify fuels.

Methanol, hydrogen and electricity-powered vessels are all due this year to join its fleet of 18 tugboats on the North Sea.

“We're trying to become a platform where innovation can be tested,” said port chief executive Jacques Vandermeiren at Tuesday's launch of the world's largest hydrogen-powered vessel, the 30-metre Hydrotug 1.

“Then we'll be able to compare and explain the benefits and drawbacks of each technology.”

Green tugboats are a “drop in the water” in Antwerp's green strategy, Mr Vandermeiren told The National.

By 2030, the port also hopes to capture about half of its 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year and store it in empty gasfields in the North Sea.

The port's carbon dioxide emissions, which are 10 per cent of Belgium's carbon footprint, come mostly from its petrochemical industry, which is the second biggest in the world behind Houston in the US.

But the port's green strategy also signals how complex the transition is for the shipping industry, which represents three per cent of global greenhouse emissions.

Ambitious political statements have so far indicated support but industry leaders are divided on what alternative fuels they should invest in.

The EU has thrown its weight behind efforts such as Danish shipping and logistics company AP Moller-Maersk's launch in September of the world's first methanol-enabled container vessel, the Laura Maersk.

“This event is a big deal, not only for Europe but for the whole world,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Copenhagen.

She praised the Laura Maersk as the fruit of co-operation between private innovation and the EU's ambitious climate policies to become carbon neutral by 2050.

But Ms von der Leyen also highlighted the enormous challenge that lies ahead.

“The next priority is to secure green fuels … at scale,” she said.

The EU plans to produce and import 20 million tonnes of hydrogen by 2030.

The 'molecule of the future'

For CMB Tech chief executive Alexander Saverys, whose company owns Hydrotug 1, hydrogen is the “molecule of the future”.

One of the oldest Belgian shipping companies, CMB Tech shifted in 2017 to hydrogen fuel and launched in 2021 the first hydrogen-powered ferry in Japan in collaboration with local shipbuilding company Tsuneishi.

Now, with Hydrotug 1, the company wants to show that it can fulfil clients' request to reduce carbon emissions.

The tugboat is equipped with dual-fuel engines that will run on average at 65 per cent on hydrogen and the rest on diesel.

After leasing it for operations as part of its fleet for two or three years, Antwerp-Bruges port will decide whether it wants to buy Hydrotug 1, which costs 30 per cent more than traditional diesel-fuelled tugboats.

The port has also bought a so-called metha-tug from a Dutch company that it will begin using in the second quarter of next year. This will be followed by an electricity-powered tugboat.

This implies an increase in operating costs for the port but for now they will not be handed down to customers.

“We'll see how we absorb the costs and how we sell our old ships – it needs to be ambitious but also realistic when it comes to price and technology,” Mr Vandermeiren said.

The aim is to experiment with these “fuels of the future”, said port spokesman Lennart Verstappen.

“We don’t know what will work best or how cost will evolve.”

At CMB Tech, hydrogen is viewed as the way forward in comparison to battery-fuelled ships, which struggle with high speed or heavier cargo. Methanol is less green than hydrogen, because relying on biomass raises questions about its source, Mr Saverys said.

“Hydrogen is the molecule of the future to green the maritime sector,” he told The National.

“We need to prove that it works and is safe so that we can move forward and run thousands more such ships.”

But there are limits to hydrogen's use in the maritime sector.

It is highly flammable and hard to compress, meaning that for long-haul trips across continents, it is preferable to transform it into ammonia, an option that is under consideration at CMB Tech.

There is also not enough hydrogen in the market, an issue often referred to as a “chicken and egg” problem that slows down investments.

These are obstacles also faced by CMB Tech.

“The biggest issue for us is the price and availability of hydrogen”, Mr Saverys said.

Hydrotug 1 runs on 415kg of hydrogen a day, which is produced locally near the port and can last about 24 hours.

CMB Tech has ordered another 40 other hydrogen-fuelled ships, including a 200,000-tonne bulk carrier – at least 50 times bigger than Hydrotug 1.

The company is acutely aware that much more hydrogen will be needed than is produced at Antwerp port and has plans to import it from Namibia and possibly the Middle East.

“Our ultimate goal is to run bulk carriers on hydrogen,” said Mr Saverys. “But we have to start bottom-up.”

Updated: December 13, 2023, 7:10 AM