Alternative fuels & Maritime Shipping
How realistic is it to have the world fleet change to alternative fuel by 2050? Environmental expert Guido Van Meel sheds some light on the alternatives.
However, let’s take a closer, realistic look at these alternatives. Ships have a lifetime of 25-30 years, meaning that if ordered today, the ship will sail till 2050. So, renewing the maritime fleet is a long process.
Let’s look at LNG. Fifteen years ago, Scandinavian shipowners and ports saw the possibility to switch the polluting HFO by LNG. LNG emits zero Sox, virtually zero particulate matter, and depending on the technology used 90 fewer NOx emissions. The use of LNG can result in GHG reductions by about 20% (if the methane slip can be controlled). But how is the situation today?
Beginning 2020, 175 LNG fueled ships were operational and about 200 on order. On top there are +/- 600 LNG carriers, that sometimes use their boil off gas. On a total of 60.000 ships worldwide this represents a modest 0.6% - 1.6% of the world fleet.
Considering that LNG is still a fossil fuel, then the result after 15 years is to be poor.
Why does it take so long?
1. A worldwide legal system is required, that allows the LNG-fuel to be used, with all safety issues involved.
2. LNG fuel tanks are twice as big as oil tanks (due to its energy density, the insulation - LNG is liquid at -162C°). Consequence is that larger container vessels (+18.000 TEU) are to use 2 LNG tanks of 11.000m³.
3. LNG infrastructure is expensive. Only small scale LNG supply in small Scandinavian ports can be done by cooling down natural gas from the normal grid and supply it by trucks. From the moment you need to supply for example 5.000ton HFO- equivalent, infrastructure needs include the construction of LNG storage tanks and a LNG bunkering barge. Building such a barge exceeds >20 million €, or 4-5 times the standard HFO-MDO bunkering barges.
4. The use of LNG requires an additional training of the crew with regards to handling and safety issues.
Specialized press promotes other alternative fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, methanol, ethanol etc.
Clearly though also these new fuels have a long way ahead before being widely deployed or being commercially feasible. It requires also smart solutions to solve problems such as: energy density and the energy cost involved.
Hydrogen, liquid at -253C has as density close to 1/3 of LNG. Imagine then large container vessels sailing with 6 tanks of 11.000m3 ! The payload capacity by consequence is dramatically decreased! Also for ammonia the density is ca 50% of LNG, meaning that you need to double the tank capacity. Luckily, ammonia is liquid at -33C°.
It just does not (yet) add up.
Today only 96 seaports have LNG bunkering capacity; than we come to 96. The majority of the small scale bunker ports are situated in Northern Europe. On a global scale, only 30-40 ports have large scale LNG bunker facilities.
Solving this supply chain problem will be key to make alternative fuels successful.
But what to think about the ports?
Ports that will offer a multitude of fuels need to develop the required bunkering infrastructure. Bunkering ships for LNG, Hydrogen, ammonia etc. but you need also the storage tanks and other equipment. Amid the already scarcely available land in port areas, the problem only becomes bigger when including the required alternative fuel infrastructure, at waterfront.
In the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, ships bunkered respectively 12-13mln tonnes of HFO and -MDO and 7mln tonnes of HFO-1mln MDO. Switching even part of this volume to alternative fuels requires significant infrastructure investments and barges.
In short, stormy debates ahead.
Author: Guido Van Meel