A new proposal aims to take hydrogen fuel cells from land to the ocean, using massive fuel-cell systems to power ships.

Swiss firm ABB has signed a memorandum of understanding with Hydrogène de France (HDF) to develop a "megawatt-scale" power source for large vessels.

The maritime system will be based on a stationary power plant developed by ABB and Ballard Power Systems, a manufacturer of the proton exchange membranes used in many fuel cells. HDF will handle manufacturing at a new facility in Bordeaux, France.

Use of renewable sources to produce hydrogen would result in a clean supply chain, ABB said in a press release, without elaborating further.

Fuel cells are generally thought of as a zero-emission power source for road vehicles, but they could significantly reduce emissions if applied to ships.

Analysis has shown that one large cargo ship can produce as much air pollution as 50 million cars. Shipping is responsible for 2.5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, ABB noted.

ABB hydrogen fuel cell ship

ABB hydrogen fuel cell ship

The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency that regulates shipping, has set a goal of reducing emissions 50% from 2008 levels by 2050.

It's a similar story with cruise ships, which not only burn massive amounts of diesel fuel, but have also been found to use dirtier, high-sulfur diesel fuel while at sea.

We don't know of any attempt to build a zero-emission cruise ship so far, but alternative power sources have been tried on smaller-scale passenger vessels.

The first battery-electric ferry entered service in Norway in 2015, and a San Francisco ferry operator announced plans for a fuel-cell ferry that same year. The fuel-cell ferry was still under construction as of late 2019, while a larger battery-electric ferry is now plying Norwegian waters.