First liquefied hydrogen carrier launched in Japan

In line with its commitment to pave the way for the first "Hydrogen Society", Japan intends to use this carrier to transport hydrogen from Australia, where it is produced from lignite.
In December 2019, Japan has launched the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier ship. The launch of the Suiso Frontier — ‘suiso’ means ‘hydrogen’ in Japanese —  by Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) marks the first stage in a Shell-backed HySTRA pilot project which will see large quantities of H2 produced from brown coal in Australia and then shipped 9,000km to the city of Kobe in Japan (1).

The vessel’s vacuum-insulated hydrogen storage tank — which is currently being under construction and will be installed by late 2020 — will be able to contain 1,250 m3 of liquefied hydrogen (LH2) at a temperature of -253°C. The liquefaction process reduces the volume of hydrogen gas by a factor of 800. Motohiko Nishimura, the head of KHI hydrogen development centre said that the -253°C temperature needed for the LH2 carrier has required advances in insulation compared with the -162°C used for liquid natural gas (LNG). “For the tank support structures, we employed glass-fibre reinforced polymers, which are poor conductors of heat but extremely strong” he said (2).

Hydrogen is a clean-burning gas, but it does not occur in its pure form in nature, so it has to be extracted from hydrogen-rich substances. To date, due to favourable economics, it has mainly been produced from natural gas or coal — processes that emit 9 to 12 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of H2 produced. In order to be really considered a clean energy, the hydrogen can be produced via electrolysis (splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen with an electric current) but this process is costly. It can also be produced via fossil fuels with the CO2 captured and stored although current commercialised processes are said to be unable to capture more than 95% of the emitted carbon.

The HySTRA project will see low-grade, moisture-rich brown coal “gasified” — by mixing it with oxygen and steam under high pressures — at an under-construction facility in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria state, southeast Australia. This process creates a synthetic gas consisting mainly of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen, which are then separated. The two compounds in this “syngas” are then separated by a membrane, with the hydrogen captured and stored and the CO released into the air, where it naturally combines with oxygen atoms to form CO2. The bulk of this carbon could be captured and stored, but the project does not currently aim to do so. The hydrogen gas will then be transported in trucks to the nearby port of Hastings, where it will be liquefied and loaded onto the Suiso Frontier, before being shipped to an under-construction unloading terminal in Kobe.

As Japan has little available areas for onshore wind and solar farms, the country is planning to develop within its “Basic Hydrogen Strategy” (3) a "Hydrogen Society", with huge volumes of clean H2 imported. The Suiso Frontier can carry 1,250m3 of LH2 in a single tank. However, to meet Japan’s goals and implement a commercial hydrogen supply chain by 2030, Mr Nishimura said KHI would need to develop much larger vessels, with a capacity of around 160,000 m3, therefore similar to the capacity of modern LNG carriers (2).