A floating economy (Day 176)

A floating economy (Day 176)

19th November 2014

Two projects have caught my eye recently that may give some hints about where we might build some of our power stations and processing facilities in the future.

Quite rightly, land-based power stations and industrial units are subject to careful scrutiny before planning permission is given. The fact they are so visible and close to communities means the opinions of thousands of people may need to be considered.

Even offshore facilities like fixed wind farms, visible from coastlines, bear the scars of public consultation.

But what if we generated our power or processed raw materials further out into our seas and oceans, beyond the horizon. Would that offer a new solution?

Floating energy - the Fukushima Floating Wind Turbine Demonstration Project. Image by Fukushima Forward

One of the projects underway is a floating wind turbine and substation off the coast of Fukushima, just 20 kilometres from the damaged nuclear facility bearing the same name.

A two megawatt (MW) turbine from Hitachi Ltd - nicknamed “Fukushima Mirai” - and a floating substation - called “Fukushima Kizuna” - are already operating.

There are advantages to this approach. Japan's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) has said that: "Building wind power turbines on land would be more difficult, because of the problems of noise pollution and city planning regulations...So we are looking at the space offshore."

In 2011, ANRE earmarked up to 20 billion yen (US$261 million) for the project, with the money coming from a special extra budget intended to finance the rebuilding of the tsunami-hit northeast coast of Japan.

Two more turbines, with seven MW of capacity each, are in development. The area may eventually see up to 1,000 MW of 'floating energy' off the coast of Fukushima.

Of course, there are considerations. Disruption to fishing fleets and safety from busy shipping lanes are factors.

Mitsubishi Floating Hydrogen Facility. Image by Mitsubishi

The second project, which is seeking to take 'processing' out to sea, is the construction a of floating hydrogen factory by Mitsubishi.

The floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) facility - for the production and offloading of hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) - will be made by recovering hydrogen produced as a byproduct of oil and gas extraction.

The facility will be the world’s first FPSO facility capable of producing hydrogen energy, raising expectations of significant contributions to the development of marine resources and expanded use of clean energies.

The H2/CO2 FPSO facility will carry out steam reforming of associated petroleum gas (APG) generated by offshore plants above subsea oil fields, convert it to CO2 and hydrogen, and extract the resulting CO2 and hydrogen.

The CO2 is to be used in CO2-EOR (enhanced oil recovery), a method for promoting recovery of naturally depleted oil fields. The simultaneously generated hydrogen is put through toluene hydrogenation reaction applying the organic chemical hydride (OCH) method, becoming fixated as methylcyclohexane (MCH) which can be stored in liquid form at ambient temperature and pressure.

The MCH stored in the FPSO will then be loaded onto a chemical tanker or other conventional transport vessel for transport.

At port, hydrogen will be extracted from the MCH by a dehydrogenation method developed by Chiyoda, enabling its supply to existing infrastructures.

Mitsubishi say the system offers the advantage of permitting the configuration of a hydrogen supply chain without requiring large capital investments for vessels dedicated to hydrogen transport. It also enables the transport of hydrogen in a form (MCH) that is safe and easy to handle.

The European Union is also looking at an offshore hydrogen research project, called H2Ocean. This is aimed at turning wind and wave power into hydrogen at sea, then shipping it to shore as green energy.

I'm sure we will learn significantly from both of these major projects over the next few years, especially as the drive towards sustainable, cleaner, low carbon energies gains pace.