In the context of the global push toward zero greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen definitely has a seat at the table.

That said, how realistic is its use for vessel propulsion and to provide energy on board?

Hydrogen has its clear limitations - for example on board storage. Whilst hydrogen has a high energy density per unit of weight, it has far less in terms of volume because it is a gas. The use of liquefied hydrogen would be the next logical step to improve its scope of use and the range. However, the process of liquefaction remains very expensive and hence less attractive.

Some argue that if hydrogen fuel cell technology continues to develop at the current rate, the energy landscape could look very different in around five years from now.

One company that is championing the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology is Nedstack, whose fuel cell systems have been fitted into the inland shipping vessels: Maas and Antonie. Whilst the technology is exciting (because it is truly zero emissions), there remain issues with scope and range.

To illustrate, Nedstack suggests that fuel cell vessels could be used to perform offshore wind installation, but acknowledge that fossil fuels would likely be needed to transit back and forth to shore.

The other issue with hydrogen is that its production cannot yet be described as fully sustainable. Whilst hydrogen itself is a clean fuel, the manufacture of hydrogen fuel is energy-intensive and has carbon by-products. The process for producing grey hydrogen from natural gas emits carbon waste. Blue hydrogen uses carbon capture and storage for the greenhouse gases produced in the creation of grey hydrogen. Currently, approximately 96% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels via carbon intensive processes.

Looking to the future, the use of hydrogen will arguably depend upon widespread adoption and mass production, as these factors should lower the cost. Hydrogen is by no means a perfect solution to the clean energy issue, but as Nedstack argues, it is a start nevertheless.

So is hydrogen still a futuristic concept? The answer has to be “no” because the technology is already being deployed. The deeper questions centre around its sustainability and potential longevity. The next five years should be interesting as the technology in this area continues to develop.