Technological steps forward: Norway developing hydrogen ferries

Photo: Desodia / Wikimedia Commons
The MF Ole Bull car ferry will be the first one fitted with hydrogen fuel cells.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The car ferries that provide essential connections across fjords and to islands along Norway’s jagged coast act like a geographical glue that keeps communities connected. Soon they may become the most prominent evidence of the country’s commitment to be climate neutral by 2030. As reported in this newspaper in “The Tesla of the sea,” the Ampere, the world’s first electric ferry, is now in service across the Sognefjord. Other electric ferries are now being built.

Research and development now is taking the next technological step of using hydrogen from an onboard tank as a fuel that is reacted with oxygen (from air) in a fuel cell to provide the power to run the electric motors that propel a ferry. The chief advantage of the design is that unlike an electric ferry that must call at one or more terminals with facilities to charge its batteries, a hydrogen-powered ferry is free to call anywhere and may serve routes between terminals lacking charging facilities, such as those between islands off the coast.

Photo: Jan Opseth, Norwegian
Public Roads Administration / Teknisk Ukeblad
The symbol of the hydrogen-powered ferry project.

The R&D challenges are both known and unknown. The known ones are in electric propulsion. Since the first electric boat was developed in 1839, innumerable electric boats have been built, not least submarines. So the electric propulsion of boats is a mature technology. Though historically as old as electric propulsion, fuel cells were first commercially used in the 1940s. The technology of them has yet to mature. So for boats, the principal R&D challenge lies in adapting hydrogen fuel cells to commercially viable maritime use.

In Norway, several R&D incentives are now concerned with that challenge. The largest is Lavere energiforbruk i Statens vegvesen (LEIV), [Lower energy consumption in the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA)], which includes a comprehensive program for energy efficient and climate-friendly ferry operations (Further reading).

Photo: Tore Stensvold / Teknisk Ukeblad
Camilla Røhme, the NPRA engineer heading the current hydrogen ferry R&D effort.

Camilla Røhme, the NPRA Senior Engineer who heads the hydrogen ferry R&D effort points out that preparedness is essential in ferry design. A viable ferry must have sufficient backup battery capacity to function as an electric (only) ferry, in case its hydrogen fuel cells fail. In turn, this requires that it serve only routes that include terminals with adequate battery charging facilities. She believes that this mix of design challenges can best be met with new ferry designs specifically tailored for hydrogen-electric propulsion.

The Pilot-E scheme of funding, launched in 2016 by the Research Council of Norway, aims to support R&D in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in improving energy and climate technologies (Further reading). Last December, the Fiskerstrand shipyard at Fiskerstrand on the west coast of Møre & Romsdal County was awarded a Pilot-E grant to pursue its HYBRIDShips (short for “Hydrogen and Battery Technology for Innovative Powertrains in Ships”) R&D project that aims to design a purpose-built hydrogen-powered ferry (Further reading).

The Christian Michelsen Research (CMR) institute at the University of Bergen may well be the first to actually achieve hydrogen-powered ferry operation. An ongoing CMR project now will install hydrogen fuel cells on an operating car ferry, the MF Ole Bull [named for Bergen native virtuoso violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810-1880)] that serves the route between Valestrand and Breistein near Bergen. One of the ferry’s two diesel engines will be replaced by an electric motor powered by commercially available fuel cells combined with batteries. Experience gained will be used to set the course of development of hydrogen hybrid ferries as zero-emission solutions for coastal marine vessels.

Further reading:
• “Vil utvikle første hydrogen-elektriske ferje” (Will develop first hydrogen-electric ferry), Norwegian Public Roads Administration press release, February 8, 2017, link: (in Norwegian)

• “NOK 70 million in funding is available for solutions for zero-emissions maritime transport under the PILOT-E scheme,” The Research Council of Norway announcement, October 12, 2016, link:

• “Fiskerstrand får støtte til hydrogendrevet ferge” (Fiskerstrand awarded support for hydrogen-fueled ferry) Fiskerstrand Holding press release, December 16, 2016, link: (in Norwegian)

• “The first hydrogen ferry in Norway,” Christian Michelsen Research (CMR) Press Release, June 14, 2016, link:

This article originally appeared in the May 19, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.