Safe Harbor: Protecting Ports with Shipboard Fuel Cells

By Taylor, David A. | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Safe Harbor: Protecting Ports with Shipboard Fuel Cells


Taylor, David A., Environmental Health Perspectives


In September 2005, the city of Los Angeles announced a mandate to cut the air pollution from its harbor. The head of the city's harbor commission, S. David Freeman, gave the port managers a sobering directive: "Start acting like our lives are depending on it," he told them, according to the 29 September 2005 Los Angeles Times, "because our lives do depend on it." Three months later, the California Air Resources Board adopted rules that require ships within 24 miles of the state's coast to reduce diesel emissions to 2001 levels within the next four years. These developments have shippers scrambling to find a way to cut emissions. One of the main technologies attracting their attention is the use of fuel cells.

The Full Import

Each year, the Port of Los Angeles--occupying 7,500 acres and 43 miles of waterfront--handles more than 162 million metric revenue tons of cargo (measured as 1,000 kilograms or 1 cubic meter, whichever is larger). With the increase in Pacific commerce, port diesel emissions have increased 60% since 2001, and the port complex has in 10 years become the single largest air polluter in the Los Angeles basin, according to the 25 September 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Nearby residents blame the port for illnesses ranging from asthma to cancer, according to Diane Bailey, head of the Health and Environment Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in San Francisco. Studies have linked particulate matter from diesel fumes to respiratory illness and cancer.

In an August 2004 report titled Harboring Pollution: Strategies to Clean Up U.S. Ports, the NRDC noted that besides direct threats to human health, growing harbor traffic could increase regional smog, threaten water quality and public lands, and increase noise and light pollution. With three of the country's five largest harbors in California, Bailey says, cutting port pollution and the health impacts on surrounding communities is a "huge priority" for the state.

The source of most ship-related emissions is Bunker C fuel, a diesel that produces a thick, sticky residue. (Bunker C gets its name from the era when steamships were fired by coal stored in bunkers. When ships shifted to diesel, crews still used the term "bunker" to include liquid fuel tanks.) Ships in port can also use a kind of extension cord plugged in to land power supplies, but Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, says these cords can be somewhat dangerous if they get tangled during loading or unloading. Therefore, most ships in port use diesel engines to provide "hoteling" power--basic lighting, heating, ventilation, and light electricity.

The Beauty of Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are cleaner than diesel turbines and other internal combustion engines. Samuelsen explains that fuel cells convert energy from hydrogen directly to electricity without combustion; the only residues are water and heat.

A fuel cell works using the same electrochemical reaction as the battery under a car hood, Samuelsen explains. But whereas the battery in your car primarily stores energy while the engine is turned off, a fuel cell reaction provides energy continuously as hydrogen fuel encounters oxygen. Compared to internal combustion, says Samuelsen, "the fuel cell is more of a one-stop shop, one reaction." And with fewer moving parts, there's the prospect of reduced maintenance.

The NRDC recommended fuel cells as a quieter, cleaner, more efficient power source for ships in Harboring Pollution. Since the report appeared, Bailey says other technologies have gained momentum, at least in the short run. Among them are diesel-electric hybrids, more efficient versions of the locomotive engine, which can cut emissions by 90% compared with the old diesel engines used to assemble freights in port rail yards. Another alternative is the gas turbine engine, which has strong marketplace advocates. …

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