Methanol, an effective hydrogen carrier, in combination with a PEM fuel cell, can help decarbonise the inland waterways fleet, writes e1 Marine managing director Stuart Crawford
Inland shipping represents a critical link in the supply chain, transporting 550M tonnes of cargo across Europe’s waterways annually, and 470M tonnes of cargo in the US, based on recent data.
However, the sector must curb its emissions if it is to remain the transport method of choice versus land-based competitors which are decarbonising faster.
The inland cargo vessels, towboats and tugboats at the heart of these networks are already some of the least polluting vessels within the maritime industry. This is borne out by data from the Texas Institute of Transportation, which shows rail emits 39% more CO2, and transport by truck 371% more. However, despite their current performance, inland waterways vessels will fall short of the emerging regional and global environmental standards.
Moreover, since these ships are operating in rivers, harbours and canals that are typically close to well-populated areas, their emissions profile is a growing concern among the voting public.
The reality is that a great many of the vessels operating on the inland waterway networks of Europe and the US were built long before sustainable operations became a priority. This is reflected in the typical vessel design, which is predominantly powered by internal combustion engines. These engines are noisy, produce large amounts of NOx, SOx, and particulate matter (PM), and greenhouse gas emissions, but they remain popular due to their reliability, familiarity, and – until recently – a lack of compelling alternatives.
Exacerbating this challenge to reduce emissions is the bunkering network and infrastructure is well established to deliver marine diesel oil and marine gasoil. As a consequence, the ‘greening’ of the inland shipping fleet requires a fresh approach.
Creating a solution to decarbonise such a vast and established network was never going to be easy. Fundamentally, as we’ve seen with similar systemic changes in other sectors, there is a need for three things: innovation, collaboration and vision.
It is this mindset which we have applied to the development of our methanol-to-hydrogen technology.
As recognised by those before us, methanol is chemically a very effective carrying medium for hydrogen. An approved fuel type in the maritime industry, cost competitive – even in comparison with contemporary diesel generators – and readily available at more than 85 of the top 100 ports worldwide, methanol also solves the challenges of high-cost hydrogen storage and supply limitation.
Indeed, methanol is being increasingly recognised by industry leaders for its viability in helping to meet decarbonisation targets. Most recently, MSC Group and Oldendorff Carriers showed their support for the fuel by joining the Methanol Institute, a global trade association focused on the future of fuel. Nevertheless, there is little concern about demand outpacing supply. Methanol Institute chief operating officer Chris Chatterton recently noted that “annual global production of methanol and its renewable forms will grow fivefold over the next 30 years.”
Taking all of this into consideration, we firmly believe methanol reforming for hydrogen generation, when combined with a PEM fuel cell, is the missing link for decarbonising inland shipping and enhancing its unit economics.
Safe, environmentally superior, and cost competitive, the hydrogen generated from our technology can be used to either produce electricity, or as the main source of propulsion on inland vessels. The e1 Marine Methanol Reformer is a key element within this technology. It not only enables the effective transportation of hydrogen in the form of methanol, but when used in conjunction with the methanol and water blend, reduces CO2 emissions by a minimum of 35%. This combination of methanol and water increases the hydrogen ratio by a further 33.33% leading to a price competitive and efficient decarbonisation solution. Likewise, our technology produces zero NOx, SOx and PM emissions, and can be combined with carbon capture solutions to further enhance a vessel’s green credentials.
As with implementing any new technology and low- or zero-carbon fuel, maintaining high safety standards offshore is a valid concern for shipowners and operators and a primary focus for us.
We expect to shortly have type approval in place from a leading classification society for our technology. With an ISO already in place for the use of methanol in the maritime sector, the benefits of a methanol-based, hydrogen-dense marine fuel also includes negating the need for any high-pressure hydrogen storage on board a vessel. Likewise, as the fuel emits no noxious gas, it also offers a safe working environment for crew on board, superior to that of those working on vessels using combustion engines.
A new era for inland shipping
Working alongside chemical and tanker owner Ardmore Shipping, maritime leasing and finance company Maritime Partners, we pioneered our methanol-to-hydrogen technology in response to an industry seeking affordable, easily applicable and effective decarbonisation solutions. While decarbonising thousands of tugboats, workboats and freight vessels will not happen overnight, decarbonisation strategies must be implemented now. And it is methanol that holds the ‘missing link’ to realising hydrogen and achieving zero-carbon inland shipping.
About the author
Named managing director of Oregon-based clean technology provider e1 Marine in June, Mr Crawford is the former chief executive of Clean Ocean LNG, fleet director of Seaspan Ship Management, and head of technical at Pioneer Marine. A highly experienced merchant navy officer who served 20 years at sea and progressed to the rank of chief engineer, Mr Crawford is a graduate of South Shields Marine School’s Marine and Mechanical Engineering programme, and the Copenhagen Business School’s Blue MBA.