Uptake of methanol as a marine fuel has been boosted following IMO Maritime Safety Committee’s adoption of interim guidelines on the use of methanol as a marine fuel, leading to questions of why LNG is being used as a transition fuel
The new methanol guidelines are expected to shorten class approval times, lower newbuilding costs and are driving increasing industry interest in vessel designs and retrofit option for ships powered by methanol.
During the Why IMO approval is rocket fuel for uptake of methanol as a marine fuel webinar, part of Riviera’s Marine Fuels Webinar Week, experts from the methanol as a marine sector met to discuss the latest developments in a panel comprising: Methanol Institute chief operating officer Chris Chatterton, Anita Gajadhar managing director of Proman Shipping (a Proman subsidiary), as well as the managing director of marketing and logistics for Proman globally, and AP Moller–Maersk (Maersk) head of technical innovation Jacob Sterling.
Methanol has been used as a fuel on board methanol carriers operated by methanol producers successfully for years, but the rise of decarbonisation has had vessel operators outside of the methanol industry taking a closer look at this readily available, low-carbon marine fuel.
How much interest? In a poll, methanol (18%), LNG (17%) and biofuel (16%) were close favourites to the question: which fuel is most suitable for you fleet? The percentages are likely to widen, as of March 2021, a staggering 20% replied that they had not performed an analysis and had no idea which fuel will be suitable.
Year-on-year, that percentage of decarbonisation fuel-wary fence-sitters is going to decrease, and the percentage of the three favourite options is likely to rise. Methanol has a lot going for it. Like biofuel, it can be made from renewable sources, and via other means. Methanol does not require anything like the infrastructure, such as cryogenic tanks, needed for LNG.
But LNG was quick to find producers pushing its merit as an alternative fuel. In a poll, more than half (63%) agreed or strongly agreed that adopting a transition fuel (LPG, LNG) in the short term and decarbonising later will be cost effective in the 2050 timeframe. Only 32% disagreed and 5% strongly disagreed.
That may change as the understanding of methanol’s capabilities becomes more widely recognised. IMO approval will help. Mr Chatterton explained that in November 2020, IMO approved methanol in its interim guidelines for low-flashpoint fuels. “This has led to increased interest by shipowners, ports and flag states to consider methanol, not only as a suitable compliant fuel today, but to carry ICE’s well into the future technology platforms such as fuel cells and hybrid technology,” he said.
Mr Chatterton noted that methanol has highly flexible routes to production, through biomass, renewable electricity, natural gas, and coal. “There is considerable experience in the production of lower carbon methanol,” he said. There is also transparency due to the wide use of methanol in the consumer market – less price volatility and better visibility.
There are a number of methanol-powered vessels in service and there is no loss of range, which is one of the anxieties expressed. One of the companies developing methanol-powered ships is Proman Shipping, whose managing director Ms Gajadhar explained that the capex to retrofit or newbuild a methanol-powered vessel is quite low compared to the alternatives. “Methanol is also biodegradable – there is less risk to the environment,” she said, “Methanol has the same energy and chemical characteristics no matter how it is produced.” Therefore, grey methanol and green methanol perform the same, but clearly green methanol has a higher saving in carbon.
“Methanol is very price competitive compared to the fossil fuel alternatives,” said Ms Gajadha. Considering the infrastructure required for LNG, methanol is a lower capex solution.
Proman is the second-largest producer of methanol and has three methanol-powered vessels on order. Proman, like the other major methanol producer Methanex, is well placed to supply methanol as a bunker fuel. The anxiety over the supply of methanol was voiced in a poll. The main hurdle for placing a newbuild order or a retrofit fuelled by methanol is: over half (52%) replied that whether methanol will be available where and when required was a concern; 19% were unclear if methanol could meet decarbonisation targets; and 14% were unclear if running costs were competitive. Around 10% felt that a clear decarbonisation policy from IMO was a hindrance and 5% referred to funding capex for methanol as a hindrance.
For methanol as a marine fuel to gain wider acceptance outside the narrow sphere of the producers and movers of methanol will require an independent champion. There are fewer bigger or better equipped shipping companies than Maersk, whose head of technical innovation Mr Sterling explained the company’s thought processes.
Having examined all the options, Mr Sterling explained that the company had identified three fuels that have the sustainability and scale to achieve the goal of carbon neutral shipping: methanol, lignin fuels and ammonia. He explained that lignin fuels are produced from biomass. Adding lignin alcohol to methanol “gives a fuel that also has a higher calorific value and slightly better technical properties than ’pure’ methanol,” he said.
So far, the lignin alcohol methanol mix has not been tested in a marine engine. But returning to what is available today, Mr Sterling noted that methanol has a lot of properties and advantages over the alternative and transition fuels.
But, he noted, it becomes a classic chicken and egg challenge. “We wanted to address this head on. We have decided we will launch our first methanol-fuelled vessel in 2023,” he said. This will be a 175-m long, 2,000-TEU container ship, which will trade in the Maersk intra-regional network. The vessel will require 10,000 tonnes of green methanol as a marine fuel each year.
Mr Sterling also stated that Maersk is completely committed to dual fuels and all future newbuildings will have this feature. This will include ammonia when these engines are available.
Methanol will be the key fuel. “We think that momentum is picking for green methanol for shipping. The technology is there – we just need to push it,” said Mr Sterling.
This raised an interesting point. In many people’s eyes, methanol and ammonia are competing fuels, as shown in a poll, where 50% agreed or strongly agreed that ammonia and methanol compete with each other and investing in one precludes going down the other road. However, an equal number (50%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement.
Maersk’s strategy is to grow experience with methanol and then move onto ammonia – not mutual exclusivity.
Technological developments with methanol as a marine fuel are moving fast. In 2019, Methanex launched two methanol carriers, Mari Couva and Mari Kokako. Both were methanol powered but Mari Kokako was given a water injection system which lowered emissions to Tier III levels without the use of an SCR.
The three Proman Shipping vessels being built at GSM in China will have the same MAN ES engines with water injection to achieve Tier III with SCR. The next-generation methanol-powered engines are already under development.
Alfa Laval will soon conduct major tests of methanol as a marine fuel at the company’s Test & Training Centre in Aalborg, Denmark. As part of a research project funded by Danish Energy Technology Development and Demonstration Program, the company is working with MAN Energy Solutions among other partners to explore the possibility of running the centre’s four-stroke, 2-MW diesel engine on methanol – without modifications or another pilot fuel.
From left to right: AP Moller–Maersk head of technical innovation Jacob Sterling, Methanol Institute chief operating officer Chris Chatterton and Proman Shipping managing director marketing and logistics Anita Gajadhar