Fincantieri considers biofuels to power its future warships

ROME – Of all the alternative fuels presented as future solutions for cleaner warships, one of the European shipyards is betting on cow manure.

“I see biofuels made from substances such as agricultural biomass and food waste as a short-term alternative to fossil fuels for warships,” said Massimo Debenedetti, vice president of research and innovation at the Italian shipyard Fincantieri.

Debenedetti’s views should be taken seriously as he oversees a series of studies that the company hopes will lead to greener warships through cooperation with partner companies and his own experience with cruise ships. . The company also collaborates with French government and industry, but the driving force comes mostly from the Italian Navy, Fincantieri’s biggest military client.

“The Italian Navy is very aware of the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, even though international regulations on reducing emissions only apply to civilian ships,” said Debenedetti.

Biofuels are part of an ongoing study by Isotta Fraschini Motori, a propulsion company owned by Fincantieri, which aims to develop a marine engine that can use either traditional fuel or liquid natural gas, ammonia, gasoline, or liquid natural gas. ‘hydrogen or biofuels.

“Besides biomass and food waste, biofuels can come from crops unsuitable for consumption,” Debenedetti said.

But ammonia – another possible alternative to fossil fuels – is the “toughest challenge,” he added. “When it’s burned, it produces energy, but storing it is difficult and igniting it is difficult. “

While biofuel has short-term potential, the longer-term challenge that Fincantieri is working on is to create hydrogen fuel cells for surface ships that are similar to those used on submarines today.

“The technology is mature, but not ready to be used on ships at the right scale. While you might need it to generate 100 kilowatts on a submarine, you will need tens of megawatts on a surface vessel, ”Debenedetti said.

A three-year joint study launched last year by Fincantieri, the French naval group and their joint venture Naviris, with funding from the French and Italian defense ministries, explores how fuel cells can be carried aboard a ship of war.

“It’s about making the system shockproof and making it fit in a limited space,” Debenedetti said. “Fuel cells take up more space than traditional propulsion, in particular because of the storage of hydrogen. And while on a passenger ship I could remove cabins to make room for it, I cannot on a warship. “

Another study, this time around both the civilian maritime market and the defense sector, aims to advance Zeus, a program to build a 25-meter, 170-ton experimental vessel to test the technology. fuel cells. Currently under construction at the Castellammare di Stabia construction site in Fincantieri, near Naples, Zeus involves the contribution of Isotta Fraschini Motori and is funded by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development.

Fincantieri believes that its work on technologies for the civil and military sector will give it an industrial advantage. “People working on both sides can exchange information – the learning curve on the civilian side benefits our defense work,” Debenedetti explained.

It’s the same kind of synergy that has seen Fincantieri use his work on passenger comfort aboard cruise ships to improve the lives of sailors on his FREMM warships – a factor that convinced the United States to buy the frigate.

Likewise, noise and vibration reduction work on military ships has been used on cruise ships.

When it comes to reducing emissions that are harmful to the environment, the pressure is greatest in the civil sector, where the European Union is pushing Member States to go green.

On July 26, Fincantieri, energy company Snam and cruise ship operator MSC signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly build a zero-emission hydrogen cruise ship.

“This could be achievable by the start of the next decade, possibly using fuel cells which are more efficient although more expensive and larger than a hydrogen internal combustion engine,” Debenedetti said.

Another alternative to fossil fuels, liquid natural gas is already a mature technology for freighters, he said, “but refueling is the problem: in the Mediterranean, the only port with LNG refueling is Barcelona”.

Even though military ships are not under regulatory pressure to reduce fuel consumption, there is a real need to use energy sparingly, as new radar and laser weapons absorb huge amounts of energy on board.

This prompted another study, this time funded by the Italian Ministry of Defense, to examine the use of direct current electricity on board ships, as opposed to the more usual alternating current.

“Direct current allows you to better handle high loads of electricity over a short period of time,” Debenedetti said.


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