Equipped with hybrid scrubbers, MSC’s new fleet of ultra-large container ships are ready to switch to lower-carbon fuels once they are available at scale
As Mediterranean Shipping Company’s (MSC) MSC Gülsün paves the way for cleaner box vessels, its parent company is working on a much lower-carbon future.
By installing a propulsion system on MSC Gülsün and its 10 sister ultra-large container ships (ULCSs) that can be switched to low-sulphur fuel or adapted for LNG, the Geneva-based group is lining itself up to take advantage of a range of alternative fuels and technologies when they reach a commercially viable scale.
MSC Gülsün, one of the world’s biggest container ships with a capacity of 23,756 TEU, carries DNV GL’s gas ready (D, MEc) notation, signifying it is in compliance with the relevant rules in terms of its overall design for future LNG fuel operations, and that the main engine can be converted or operate on gas fuel.
MSC claims the currently hybrid scrubber-equipped ship has the lowest carbon footprint of its class, down to 7.49 grammes of CO2 emissions per one tonne of cargo moved one nautical mile. Fitted with the most powerful engine developed by MAN Energy Solutions – its two-stroke MAN B&W 11G95ME-C9.5 main engine – the 399-m container ship has a bulbous bow, optimised rudder-bulb, exhaust gas economiser for its auxiliary engines and a shore power connection to improve its environmental performance.
However, executive vice-president for maritime policy and government affairs Bud Darr is aiming higher. “There’s no single solution to decarbonise shipping. We need a range of alternative fuels at scale and we need them urgently,” he told the inaugural Maritime Transport Efficiency Conference in Geneva in early October, stressing the importance of the container industry collaborating on technology and procurement.
For now, MSC is agnostic about exactly what fuels and technologies will enable the container industry to make the zero-carbon leap – but it is watching developments closely. In the interim, the group sees LNG as a bridging fuel as it pushes for lower-polluting alternatives.
In a briefing to Container Shipping & Trade, the group explains it is has been playing an active role in the development of biofuels for some time.
“We are past the trial phase and are on a routine basis using blends containing plus 30% biofuel in Rotterdam. Using large volumes of biofuel blends helps reduce the carbon footprint of the whole supply chain and also makes a difference in other localised pollutants.
“MSC is opting for responsibly sourced second-generation biofuel, where the feedstock of the bio-material is a waste product – used cooking oil methyl ester. Thus, the potential CO2 reduction in the bio-component of these fuels could reach 80-90%.”
Despite its obvious advantages – low sulphur and low net CO2 emissions – MSC admits the global infrastructure has a long way to go.
“There are challenges to solve such as volumes, proper handling, sustainable sourcing and distribution. Both logistical and technical issues must be solved before biofuels can be properly scaled up for the shipping industry.
“There must be a massive injection of energy and capital into R&D efforts to bring alternative fuels and alternative propulsion technologies to the marketplace for shipping lines to deploy and decarbonise in the longer term. All industry players need to work together, to get to where we need to be with decarbonisation in the end.”
One of the first container lines to show an interest in hydrogen, MSC remains cautiously excited about a technology that is already being deployed on smaller ships.
“MSC has been following clean hydrogen developments for some time and the company is actively engaging with industry to accelerate the development of clean hydrogen for shipping. When we look at the long-term options to decarbonise shipping, hydrogen is one of the few that has emerged that could be a viable option for shipping lines.
“Although there are significant challenges to overcome mainly related to density, storage and safe handling. But it could be possible to produce it in a greenhouse gas (GHG)-neutral way, using green techniques to develop it at scale. The benefits of using clean hydrogen would be tremendous – the only emissions would be water vapour and warm air.”
MSC’s thinking chimes with that of the International Transport Forum (ITF), the global think tank for transport policy. “Low-carbon fuels and energy vectors are needed to decarbonise the maritime sector,” warned the ITF in November, highlighting biofuels, electricity, hydrogen, synthetic hydrocarbons including methanol and ammonia as the most promising options.
All this will come at a cost though, as indeed MSC acknowledges in its own sustainability review. According to a recent study by the University College London’s Tristan Smith undertaken for ITF, it is possible to estimate the increase in maritime transport costs from slashing GHG emissions to acceptable levels.
Unfortunately, the spread of costs is wide – from US$50 to US$250 per carbon tonne.
“The range of maritime transport cost values represents uncertainty in the costs and prices of future fuels,” the study explains. “The lower-bound cost increase (US$50 per tonne) is predominantly contingent on the availability of low-cost zero-emissions renewable fuels (for example, hydrogen or ammonia) with the higher-bound cost increase (US$250 per tonne) including significant conservatism about developments of low-cost production pathways.”
It will all come down eventually to “planning, judicious investment activity and good policy design,” the study concludes.
Can we get there?
Class society DNV GL is optimistic because of what chief executive Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen sees as the “tectonic shifts” put in motion by the pandemic. “We need to harness that when tackling the decarbonisation challenge – and fuel is obviously the critical factor,” he said in a conversation in late October with the chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, Esben Poulsson.
Although acknowledging the importance of developing alternatives, Mr Poulsson believes gas will serve as a key fuel for the next one or even two generations of vessels and that it is important to use existing carbon-lowering technology. “Greater adoption of gas is an important step forward,” he said. “It is not carbon-free but it does have the potential to bring down emissions by around 20%.”
That is why MSC, as a world leader in the container industry, has given itself the option with MSC Gülsün and its 10 sister ships, in what is clearly an interim phase, to switch to low-sulphur fuel, LNG and other alternatives as soon as they are scaled up to mass production.