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[Herald Interview] Cargo ships are floating coal plants and hydrogen is the answer

South Korean startup Vinssen, which made the nation‘s first commercialized hydrogen-electric boat, challenges fossil fuel-based structure of shipping industry

Vinssen CEO Lee Chil-han interviews with The Korea Herald at the firm’s headquarters in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province. (Vinssen)
Vinssen CEO Lee Chil-han interviews with The Korea Herald at the firm’s headquarters in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province. (Vinssen)
A giant container ship that was knocked off by strong winds and blocked Egypt’s Suez Canal in 2021 was mounted with an 85-megawatt engine. Powered by fossil fuels, the engine is a miniature coal power plant that generates massive energy to maneuver the 200,000-ton ship the length of four football fields.

South Korea, the world‘s No. 1 shipbuilder, last year bagged 88 percent of global orders to build such huge container ships powered by internal combustion engines. Like it or not, the Asia’s No. 3 economy is unintentionally driving up the Earth‘s temperature.

At this critical juncture of climate change, Lee Chil-han, the CEO of Vinssen, is pioneering the eco-friendly transition of ships. Established in 2017, the Korean startup specializes in hydrogen power modules, which are equivalent to engines. President Moon Jae-in last year took a ride in Vinssen’s Hydrogenia, the country‘s first commercialized hydrogen-electric boat.

During an interview with The Korea Herald, the 49-year-old executive, a former engineer at Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, one of the big three shipyards in Korea, said that making a hydrogen-electric boat good enough to satisfy the president was not an easy task.

“We first installed our hydrogen power modules inside a red fishing boat. The fishing boat traveled at 7 knots, which was around 13 kilometers per hour. We were just glad that the boat moved, but far greater challenges lied ahead,” Lee recalled.

According to Lee, the difficulty of building a hydrogen electric boat can’t be compared with electric or hydrogen cars. As boats face air resistance up to 1,000 times greater than cars with their propellers constantly pushing water to power hydrogen-electric boat, much larger hydrogen fuel cells and batteries have to be installed. However, Lee was faced with an unexpected issue -- a magnetic field.

“When we started our hydrogen-electric boat, the system just shut down. As it turned out, a magnetic field was causing errors to sensors and chips that control the components from hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, motors, cooling systems and so on. It took one year to solve the magnetic field issue,” Lee said.

The greater the capacities of hydrogen fuel cells and batteries, the larger the magnetic fields become. This caused malfunctions that Vinssen suffered in the early stages.

Another critical issue was filtering. As hydrogen fuel cells generate power through the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, they require a constant flow of air. For hydrogen vehicles, which travel on land, dust filters are enough. But for hydrogen electric boats, dust filters can‘t filter out salty mist mixed with air at sea.

“The salty mist sticks on filters and solidifies, blocking the flow of air. Without air, hydrogen fuel cells can’t generate electricity. We managed to develop a special filtering system to filter out 96.7 percent of moisture inside the mist,” Lee said.

But here‘s the question. If a startup like Vinssen made such progress on hydrogen-electric boats in five years with less than 30 employees, why aren’t shipbuilders making eco-friendly boats themselves?

A the moment, there are two major ship engine makers in the world -- Germany‘s MAN and Norway’s Wartsila. However, the two can‘t start making hydrogen power modules because they have a legacy to uphold, Lee explained.

“These established ship engine makers can’t suddenly ditch all their infrastructure and start making hydrogen power modules. It would undermine the fundamental of their businesses. For them, it‘s an identity crisis,” Lee said.

“Instead, they are advancing their engines that combust with ammonia instead of fossil fuels. Though ammonia doesn’t discharge emissions when it combusts, it harbors serious issues.”

According to Lee, engines powered by ammonia were developed more than 10 years ago but haven‘t been commercialized yet due to a corrosion issue. When ammonia combusts, it corrodes components inside engines. As ship engines are made of expensive metals such as titanium, ammonia is not the right fuel.

Also, ammonia contains much less energy than fossil fuels. An ammonia-powered ship would require a fuel storage space four times greater than a fossil fuel-based ship. As ammonia tanks take up too much space, a ship loses space for cargo, which undermines profitability.

“Shipping companies know that they can save carbon taxes and carbon tariffs if they shift to hydrogen-electric ships. They have done their calculations and they know that they can make more money by cutting costs. Their goal is to go carbon neutral,” Lee said.

To target large ships, Vissen last year partnered up with Navig8, a Singapore-based global tanker company, to develop a hydrogen power module. The partnership will allow Vinssen to verify its module and build a track record necessary for large-sized ships.

By Kim Byung-wook (kbw@heraldcorp.com)
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