Various new energy technologies – from rooftop solar power to electrified, trolley-like trucks – are being deployed or explored in a quest to clean up ports, which can be pretty gnarly operations thanks to diesel emissions. Now comes a demonstration project led by the Sandia National Laboratories that hopes to take advantage of relatively clean hydrogen fuel cells.

This is one of those seemingly simple concepts that makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before: Instead of using sulfur-spewing diesel to provide power to refrigerated containers, use a self-contained hydrogen fuel cell, built on a barge so it can be moved to where it’s needed.

port fuel cell
image capture from Sandia National Labs video

Sandia is working with Honolulu Harbor shipping company Young Brothers, as well as other project partners, to build such a system and put it into service. The plan is to house the hydrogen fuel cell unit in a 20-foot shipping container. It would come with four 30-kilowatt fuel cells, a hydrogen storage system and power conversion equipment, Sandia said.

Now, hydrogen fuel cells aren’t necessarily clean in terms of the full life cycle; it all depends on how the hydrogen is produced. Nevertheless, there can be an advantage to fuel cells in ports: at the very least, onsite emissions, polluting to both water and air, are eliminated. Plus, Sandia says their research shows efficiency advantages with fuel cells.

“We compared the efficiencies of their diesel engines versus fuel cells, studied the energy efficiencies at various power levels and estimated the savings and reductions in emissions that would be realized if they were to convert to a fuel cell-powered operation,” said ( Sandia project manager Joe) Pratt. Analyses have shown that when generators are frequently producing less than maximum power, such as in the Hawaii application, the efficiency advantage of fuel cells compared to the combustion engine increases, he said.

What that means is that not only could the hydrogen fuel cell power source help make the port cleaner, “Young Brothers could save fuel and energy,” Sandia said.

The timeline for the demo is to do “detailed engineering and design through mid-2014 and, after fabrication, assembly and training for Young Brothers operators,” to put the unit into operation for six months early next year.

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