Phil Sharp’s Advances in Hydrogen


Phil Sharp, sailor and engineer, has announced that his renewables work with OceansLab has yielded a hydrogen fuel cell prototype for powering marine vessels. His “HPM” Hydrogen Power Module went on display at the Maritime Transport Efficiency Conference in Geneva last week.

Phil, who we’ve been following and supporting as an ocean racer since 2016, is now based in La Rochelle and has a research partnership with engineering school there, EIGSI, to test the fuel cell prototypes. It’s an important step forward in realizing his ambition of using clean and renewable hydrogen to decarbonize the maritime industry.

There are 53,000 merchant ships worldwide currently plying their trade, creating a higher percentage of the global CO2 emissions than aviation, and 13% / 15% of the world’s other noxious air pollutants, Sulphur Oxides and Nitrogen Oxides. Phil’s fuel cell, by comparison, has zero emissions (the only output of its operation is water, it doesn’t even make a noise!). It’s between 60% & 75% lighter than the latest all-electric lithium battery systems and is typically 2 to 3 times more efficient than marine diesel engines.

“To meet climate change goals,” says Phil, “all new boats and ships built from 2030 must be zero emission vessels, using clean fuels. Fuel cells and hydrogen will play a vital role.”

Phil “racing to Zero emissions” in OceansLab. Photo credit Olivier Blanchet

What about in distilling – an energy-intensive process, still dependent on fossil fuels like medium fuel oil, or direct fire from coal – might hydrogen play a part in our more renewable future?

It’s fallen to Production Director, Allan Logan, to research all our options for renewable fuels, since we decided to do something about our energy responsibilities in 2018. “We’re at the feasibility stages,” he says. “We’ve been meeting lots of companies and consultants to get a picture of everything that is going on around Islay. It doesn’t look like there is going to be one solution that fits all our different needs.”

It’s one thing running the stills, but another powering the bottling lines, plus there are our hospitality sites and different offices. There are potential “quick wins” on site at the distillery to reduce our emissions and recycle heat. There are renewables options that could generate just enough for us such as anaerobic digestion (which we already experimented with in 2010). And there are other initiatives bigger than just ourselves.

We’re one of Islay’s smallest 9 distilleries by output; to harness Islay’s tidal resource or off-shore wind potential there would need to be an infrastructure upgrade to the whole island and even change at a national strategy level. For that reason, if we are looking at renewable electricity generation, Allan makes the point that we also have to look at means of storing it here on the island for future local use.

Bruichladdich pier. The island’s current oil supply comes in from tankers along a pipeline here. But the island’s tidal energy potential is widely recognised.

Although the real-world architecture is different, we’ve been watching the technologies being used in Orkney and Shetland with interest. Those island communities have designed solutions to similar conundrums by creating and storing hydrogen locally. On Orkney, where they have masses of wind power installations, they’ve been using excess renewable electricity to split out hydrogen from water (giving “green hydrogen”). Shetland being a hub for the oil and gas industry, they’ve been making it from natural gas (“blue hydrogen”). You can read more about these initiatives here and here >

In both Orkney and Shetland there are massive partnerships of interests across research, industry, local government and even European Union agencies, who are investing in this new kind of economy. They are looking into storing hydrogen for local transport and heating schemes, and finding ways to become net exporters.

On Islay, we have only 3,500 residents compared to Orkney and Shetland’s 22,000+ each, so immediate consumer needs are less. We do not have a nearby gas field; we do not even have mains gas! Wind development here has been sensitive because of Special Sites of Scientific Interest and protected bird species, which alongside the national grid constraints means we have only a solitary, relatively small community wind turbine, plus a handful of privately-owned farm-sized windmills. Work to harness the tidal energy in the Sound of Islay was begun in 2010, and the license for ten 1MW turbines there is still live. We do have plenty of natural resource from wind, water and tidal energy, as yet untapped.

“We’re certainly committed to the cause…” says Allan Logan, Bruichladdich Production Director

Highlands and Islands Enterprise have begun an energy audit of Islay to see what the potential is on a macro level. It’s part of some much longer-term thinking. But that doesn’t phase Allan.

“We’re certainly committed to the cause. It’s quite exciting! It’s a different side of the business – it’s not just about us.

“We have so many different projects on the go at the moment, and they’re all based around our future ambitions, intentions, and our values, and what we believe in. It’s not just about producing litres of alcohol…

“It’s a challenge, we love a challenge. It doesn’t put us off.”

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