Mitsubishi, hydrogen, Engine • 7 min read

How hydrogen can get Europe’s inland waterways to net zero

published on 2024 04 11

Almere, the Netherlands

An impressive 37,000 kilometers of inland waterways connect 13 European countries.

Whether it’s along the Rhine, the Danube or the Rhône, inland shipping is a vital enabler of trade and logistics in Europe.

And transporting goods by ship is more CO₂-efficient per ton than using road or rail, according to the European Union, which plans to shift more freight this way. Yet, while European inland waterway vessels have relatively good environmental credentials, work still needs to be done to decarbonize their propulsion.

Inland shipping faces mounting pressure to move away from diesel as its go-to fuel from both European and country-level regulators and customers looking to clean up their supply chains, says Morten Brix, General Manager at Mitsubishi Turbocharger and Engine Europe (MTEE), a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group company.

By switching to hydrogen, ships on the inland waterways can both minimize emissions and limit air and water pollution.

MortenShipping is facing pressure to embrace more sustainable fuels, like hydrogen, Morten Brix says

A standardized but fragmented market

“At the moment, we estimate there are about 15,000 vessels on this river network. And these inland vessels, just like in the trucking industry, are more or less standardized so they can navigate all the waterways and the interconnecting points between them,” Brix explains.

Each ship has a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, but some can last up to 80 years, says Brix. They are typically powered by heavy-duty diesel engines, which need to be replaced two to three times during the ship’s life.

Brix adds that owners need to be assured they are future-proofing their vessels. This is particularly significant as inland navigation has a large share of single-vessel owners — often families who also live on their ships — and small fleets.


Europe’s inland waterways connect 13 European countries

Low-carbon options for inland waterways

As these ship owners face big capital decisions, there are a range of diesel alternatives to consider — principally fuel cells and internal combustion engines that use hydrogen or methanol instead of diesel.

As Brix explains, battery technology is not yet competitive for the inland waterways. While batteries can be used for short-haul journeys, this is not yet an option in long-haul inland waterway transport because of their range limitations. And the cost is still high, he adds. The same applies to fuel cells, which can cover larger distances but are not yet economically viable.

“In the next five to 15 years, we think that internal combustion engines (ICEs) with the capability to transition from diesel to hydrogen will have a better chance of succeeding.”

In the short term, Brix adds that MTEE expects methanol to be an option as a transition fuel for these engines, ahead of them moving over to hydrogen. “Right now, we are at a diesel stage; then we see a methanol stage from now for the next seven or eight years; then we see hydrogen really start to kick off,” he says.

A smooth transition from diesel to hydrogen

Shifting from diesel-fueled ICEs to methanol and, following that, hydrogen engines is a comparatively small move compared to the other technology options. ICE technology has long been used in inland navigation — with a track record of over 50 years — and is easy to scale, says Brix.

“We take one of our proven diesel engines as a starting point and change the fuel injection system, so the engine can handle hydrogen. We try to change as little as possible in the current engine room setup, so the transition is smooth and efficient.”

However, ships will also need to be modified in other areas, including fuel storage and piping. And hydrogen is still significantly more expensive than diesel at present – especially green hydrogen, which is made entirely from renewable energy.

Yet, as the renewables industry scales up, the price of hydrogen is expected to come down. More stringent carbon taxation and penalties will also play their part, adds Brix.

Hydrogen engines can ease the green transition for shipowners, with minimal adjustments to vessels

Hydrogen engines can ease the green transition for shipowners, with minimal adjustments to vessels

Supporting vessel owners

With the technology and regulatory roadmap still wide open and future costs hard to predict, supporting shipowners as they set out to future-proof their fleet is vital.

Brix points to the Dutch government’s ambitious mobility program, which made €47 million ($52 million) available for developing electrification and hydrogen applications, with MTEE set to install its first hydrogen engine on a vessel as part of this in 2025.

Alongside converting ships to low-carbon fuels, the Dutch mobility program is also exploring aspects such as fuel bunkering along Europe’s rivers to enable ships to refuel regularly along the way. This is important to maximize freight capacity because hydrogen’s lower energy density compared to diesel means it will take up more physical storage space on board.


Europe’s inland shipping sector needs reassurance from vendors, standards bodies and regulators

Regulation and classification

As with much of the energy transition, the frameworks governing alternative fuels such as hydrogen are still nascent.

Brix points to the EU’s ongoing work on regulation to realize its vision of a carbon-free inland waterways transport system in Europe. Similarly, Bureau Veritas, which classifies and certifies ships for insurance purposes, has only recently published its first classification rules for hydrogen-fueled ships. These include safety requirements for managing hydrogen’s flammability and special storage needs.

Creating these regulatory frameworks will be fundamental to reassuring shipowners they are making the right decisions when it comes to future-proofing their vessels.


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