While LNG as a marine fuel is gaining traction in the tanker sector, methanol remains an overlooked, though viable, alternative. So why is no-one talking about it?
The adoption rate of LNG as a marine fuel is nothing short of amazing. According to the Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF), there are now 167 vessels capable of using LNG as a fuel and a further 167 on order. According to VesselsValue, there are 28 live tankers equipped with dual-fuel engines capable of burning LNG, and another 27 on order.
LNG as a marine fuel is also gaining traction in the media. I have written at least five recent newbuilding design stories related to LNG as a marine fuel. According to Riviera Maritime Media’s website statistics, there are currently 34 stories online with the tag ‘LNG as a Fuel’. These are mainly about new shuttle tanker designs and bunker tankers designed to deliver LNG.
At Gastech – the giant LNG exhibition and conference, which promotes LNG as a marine fuel – I saw beautifully constructed stands showing cutaways of LNG tank structures, specialist cryogenic hoses, the exotic materials required for compressors and pumps and the fiendishly complex software to control the fuelling and safety systems.
None of this highly advanced (not to mention expensive) engineering was evident on the methanol MR2 tanker Mari Couva, whose naming ceremony I attended in South Korea recently. Methanol is another hydrocarbon, like LNG, but it is relatively benign as a liquid. The most exotic kit required to use methanol involves double-walled stainless-steel fuel pipes. Broadly speaking, almost any modern, electronically-controlled engine can be adapted to run on methanol with special injectors, a holding tank for the methanol fuel on the deck and one of the slop tanks adapted as a main methanol fuel tank. It is a relatively simple task; unlike retrofitting to burn LNG, which is a far more complex and expensive process.
Furthermore, methanol is available as a fuel in more ports than LNG. So why are we in the maritime industry not hearing more about it? In my view, it is down to the stakeholders in the respective industries.
SGMF consists of 140 members and contains all the main suppliers of LNG at sea equipment: GTT (tanks); Gutteling (hoses); DSME (shipyard); and some serious heavyweights in the tanker business which are also LNG suppliers and carriers, including BP Shipping, ExxonMobil, Energie, and Shell.
That level of involvement by an oil major is not yet evident in the ‘methanol as a marine fuel’ sector. In my opinion, it is this absence of key players that has left methanol lagging LNG as a marine fuel. But this situation is likely to change as word spreads of its ease of use and the relatively inexpensive capital cost of equipping a vessel to run on methanol, compared to the alternatives being promoted by the oil majors.