Hydrogen Fuel and a Case of Workforce Upskilling for Maritime Decarbonization

The maritime shipping industry, which alone produces one-quarter of all emissions from the global transportation sector, is at a critical juncture as it seeks to adopt hydrogen-based fuels to achieve decarbonization goals. Hydrogen Fuel is debuting in the industry as an alternative fuel that can offer ‘near-zero’ carbon emissions.

However, despite all the pros, it has seen a limited use case in large shipping containers due to the technical and safety challenges associated with its adoption. Recently, a senior maritime executive issued a stark warning, highlighting that any major incident with hydrogen fuel could scupper the shipping industry’s decarbonization efforts. 

The high possibility of leakage and diffusion while working with hydrogen fuel means that even minor leaks can quickly spread to other compartments, potentially leading to severe incidents such as fires and explosions due to chain reactions. Unlike conventional fuels, fuel cell technologies come with unique safety challenges that require a comprehensive understanding of hydrogen safety in complex environments like ships. This is compounded by the novelty of hydrogen technologies and the limited experience with them in commercial shipping, leading to gaps in safety knowledge.

Additionally, a major hurdle with hydrogen fuel is its storage. Despite its high energy density by weight, hydrogen’s low volumetric energy content at atmospheric conditions demands innovative storage solutions such as compression, liquefaction, or containment in physical or chemical carriers.

In 2019, the explosion of a hydrogen fuel storage tank in South Korea resulted in two deaths and six injuries, highlighting the serious consequences of accidents involving hydrogen fuel storage and transportation. This incident occurred at a government research project in the rural city of Gangneung, where a hydrogen tank explosion destroyed a complex about half the size.

More recently, in 2022, a fire broke out on the world’s first hydrogen carrier vessel in Australia shortly before it set sail to Japan carrying the world’s first international shipment of liquefied hydrogen (LH2) in January.

Such accidents underscore the critical need for stringent safety regulations and practices to prevent similar incidents in the future. Thus, as the maritime industry moves towards decarbonization, addressing safety concerns is paramount. This shift will require a skilled and knowledgeable workforce capable of operating and maintaining the new technologies.

Seafarers currently trained in marine oil will need to undergo additional training to adapt to the demands of alternative fuel technologies. This training will cover various aspects, including the safe handling, storage, and use of new fuels, as well as the operation and maintenance of the associated equipment.

Investing in upskilling the workforce is crucial for the shipping industry to successfully navigate this transition. The industry needs to create comprehensive training programs aligned with standards and best practices., and collaborate with maritime training institutions and regulatory bodies to ensure the quality and relevance of the training.

Moreover, seafarers should be offered practical training opportunities, such as simulator-based exercises, mock drills, and on-board training, to give them hands-on experience in handling and operating alternative fuel technologies.

Lastly, establishing a culture of continuous learning and professional development to keep seafarers updated with the latest technologies and advancements in the industry is also vital.

Meeting decarbonization goals, coupled with fast-moving technological developments and ever-increasing smart ship technologies, reflects a general trend towards a ‘higher-skilled’ seafarer and requires increased digital, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), safety, and organizational skills to meet net zero emission demands.

Investing in the workforce’s targeted training programs, hands-on experience, and continuous learning will be crucial to preventing any future catastrophes and ensuring a smooth transition to cleaner fuels.

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