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BIMCO Bulletin: The promise and challenge of future fuels

11 Jun 2021

The following article written by Samira Nadkarni, Journalist and maritime content creator, was published as part of the June edition of BIMCO’s Bulletin and shared with Singapore bunkering publication Manifold Times:

The World Bank’s recent publication of new research identifies ammonia and hydrogen as the two fuels that are “the most promising zero-carbon bunker fuels for shipping at present”. Respondents from BIMCO, the Smart Green Shipping Alliance and Ardmore Shipping share their opinions on the subject.

The report – The Potential of Zero-Carbon Bunker Fuels in Developing Countries – was released on 15 April 2021 and suggests that ammonia and hydrogen are the most promising for the maritime industry as zero-carbon bunker fuels. This is on the basis of their scalable nature and cost-competitiveness in comparison to other biofuel or synthetic carbon-based options. The report says these fuels are perceived as having “the most advantageous balance of favourable features due to their lifecycle GHG emissions, broader environmental factors, scalability, economics, and technical and safety implications”.

This prediction seems borne out by the joint venture “e1 Marine”, formed by Ardmore Shipping, Element 1 Corp, and Maritime Partners LLC in March 2021. The planned technology mixes methanol and water into high-purity, low-pressure hydrogen “on demand” to provide the necessary fuel source for low-temperature polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEM fuel cells).

“The units are modular and are therefore scalable to suit a broad range of applications. They are suitable for both the retrofit and newbuild market as a propulsion plant for smaller inland/coastal waterways or electrical generation on board deep-sea vessels or port terminals,” says Mark Cameron, the Chief Operating Officer of Ardmore Shipping. The technology is already going through type approval with a classification society, following which e1 Marine hopes to deploy it across a broad range of maritime applications.

Lars Robert Pedersen, the Deputy Secretary General at BIMCO, says that although there is a global shift towards a future hydrogen-based fuel economy, this would still have its challenges from a safety and economic perspective. Given the extreme volatility of hydrogen and the difficulty involved in its production and safe storage, there currently remains an associated risk.

At this point, much of the technology in question is still in its early stages, with the maritime industry acknowledging that engines can run on hydrogen and ammonia, but without proven trials in large engines. In addition, Pedersen notes that this is not merely a case of ensuring availability of fuels themselves, but also that the regulations governing shipbuilding will need to be adapted to accommodate this technology to ensure it is in line with the necessary safety standards for seafarers.

Underlying challenges to implementation

Diane Gilpin, the founder and CEO of Smart Green Shipping Alliance, says while the development of alternative zero-emission fuels are a priority, they cannot be seen as a complete solution.

“Substituting fossil fuels for zero emission ones that are going to be at least three times more expensive, of lower energy density, tied to volatile commodity markets and not available for many years at trillions of dollars cost to land-based, domestic jurisdictions, only means emissions from shipping will continue to rise,” she predicts.

Like Gilpin, Pedersen points to the economies of fuel production, distribution, and its associated machinery.

“The maritime industry is in a good place – we know what to do – but the big question is whether the world can deliver the sustainable fuels we need,” he says, pointing to the fact that traditional fuels are still the mainstay, not only in shipping but also in other global industries. Moreover, other global industries are also competing for green fuels; that suggests further economies of scale are likely to be a factor.

A looming question remains about how the ammonia and hydrogen intended for large-scale use in the maritime industry would be produced, and if this means of production would be sustainable, cost-effective, carbon-neutral, and energy-saving.

The World Bank report states that “ammonia and hydrogen offer additional flexibility as they can also be produced from natural gas combined with carbon capture storage (CCS technology) – often referred to as “blue fuels”. These multiple production pathways can help overcome concerns that not enough renewable electricity may be available initially to produce “green” ammonia and “green” hydrogen only.”

Currently, the majority of ammonia and hydrogen is sourced from natural gas and coal, and the production from these fossil fuel sources is itself energy intensive. This leads to a high carbon footprint, which negates any claim of green energy. While there are ongoing global initiatives that intend to produce hydrogen though electrolysis using renewable energy, this process comes with its own drawbacks.

As Gilpin says: “The use of primary renewable power [such as wind or solar] to make a secondary renewable energy [like hydrogen or ammonia made by using wind or solar] is an inefficient use of energy.” Instead, she argues, that it would be far more efficient to simply use wind power for direct thrust, particularly as it is free, abundant, clean and exclusively available to ships equipped to use it.

Pedersen raises a similar point, noting that if the effort of producing hydrogen for green shipping was to lead to greater environmental degradation in an associated industry, then the choice to use a carbon-zero fuel such as hydrogen (or ammonia) might be worse than the current use of carbon-based fuels. As a result, Pedersen says: “A lot of the answers to these questions may not actually lie with the shipping industry but may lie shore-side, particularly as shipping is not the only industry competing for low-carbon fuels these days.”

Gilpin notes that a current imperative, given the likelihood of an energy-constrained future, is to consider saving as much fuel as possible in the immediate term. “If we incorporate wind, hull coatings, the latest propeller solutions and make slow steaming mandatory where, with smart use of route optimisation, we can do so with the existing fleet, then we quickly drive down emissions – essential in this climate emergency – and make the future fuels issue much less of an economic problem for the industry.”


Photo credit: Shaah Shahidh on Unsplash
Published: 11 June, 2021

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