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Decarbonisation developments and challenges by Standard Club: examining emerging bunker fuels

12 Jan 2023

The Standard Club on Thursday (9 January) said it has published an article elaborating the results of its 2022 Alternative Fuels survey to look one step further – to 2030 and 2050 – and examine the emerging fuels that may feature heavily in the shipping industry’s route to decarbonisation:

Examining emerging fuels

The changing backdrop only ramps up the pressure on shipping to continue its course towards decarbonisation. With the timescale to net-zero potentially set to move forward, shipowners and operators would need to act fast and look beyond the short and mid-term goals and look forward to long-term solutions.

Our 2022 Alternative Fuels survey revealed that methanol and ammonia are at the forefront of members’ thinking when it comes to meeting IMO-2050 targets. So, what benefits do each have to offer, and what challenges may shipowners and operators face, should they choose to adopt one of these emerging fuels?

Methanol

Methanol (CH3OH) is one of the commonly shipped chemical commodities. It is produced from carbon, typically from natural gas and coal. However, carbon can also be sourced from a variety of renewable sources, including ‘biomass’, such as food crops, agricultural waste, forestry residue, used cooking oil and other waste products – supporting methanol’s green credentials.

From a regulatory aspect, the IMO interim guidelines for ships using methyl or ethyl alcohol as fuel (MSC.1/Circ.1621) along with the IGF Code for ships using low-flashpoint fuels provides detailed goal-based and prescriptive requirements for application of methanol as marine fuel.

Methanol has several benefits, including:

  • Liquid at ambient temperatures, so no need to heat or cool.
  • Relatively easier to store and handle than cryogenic fuels.
  • Possible to convert existing engines from conventional fuel to methanol.
  • Relatively minor modifications needed to existing storage and bunkering facilities.
  • Already widely traded, well-understood and readily available in some ports for bunkering.
  • Water-soluble and biodegradable, with a lower impact on the environment if a spill happens.
  • Comparatively more energy-dense than hydrogen and ammonia.
  • Clean burning fuel with low levels of sulphur oxide (SOx), nitrous oxide (NOx) and particulate matter.

However, it also presents a number of challenges:  

  • Production is still currently mainly via processing natural gas (grey methanol) or coal (brown methanol), limiting the reduction of CO2 emissions.
  • Only when methanol is produced using renewable sources like biomass, and if the power used to produce it comes from renewable energy, it is considered to be green methanol.
  • Lower energy density than conventional fuel oil.
  • Large fuel volume is almost 2.5 times fuel oil, so requires larger storage tanks and/or more frequent bunkering.
  • Low flash point of well below 60°C is a fire risk, requiring extra fire prevention measures when handled and stored.
  • Toxic if inhaled, ingested or handled.
  • Increased corrosion risks Apart from larger volume of fuel tanks, additional cofferdams will be needed to prevent any potential leak into machinery spaces.

Ammonia

Ammonia (NH3) is typically created by extracting hydrogen from hydrocarbon fuels and combining it with nitrogen extracted from liquified air. Under ambient conditions, it is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent smell.

Essentially, ammonia is a carrier of hydrogen. However, compared to hydrogen, ammonia storage is more practical due to its energy density and liquefaction temperature.

It is currently produced from natural gas but there is potential for carbon capture to reduce the emission footprint (blue ammonia), or for production from renewable sources (green ammonia).

Benefits of ammonia include: 

  • Since ammonia doesn’t contain any molecular carbon, during its combustion there are no CO2 emissions.
  • ‘Green’ production, using green hydrogen and renewable power for the conversion process, is possible. However, this process may influence its cost competitiveness.
  • Currently produced in substantial volumes for the chemical industry and distributable using existing infrastructure.
  • Commonly transported as cargo, so issues around handling and carriage are already understood.
  • Compared to hydrogen or LNG, ammonia is relatively easier to handle in terms of temperature, as it is stored at around -33oC.
  • Low fire risk due to its relatively narrow flammability range, as compared to other fuels.
  • However, it also poses a variety of challenges, such as:
  • Its toxicity. Being extremely soluble, even at extremely low concentrations, ammonia can be absorbed by body fluids (sweat, tears, saliva) and may cause severe chemical burns. Therefore, using ammonia fuel will require additional safety systems.
  • Apart from toxicity, ammonia also poses enhanced corrosion risk of certain metals such as copper, brass and zinc and various alloys.
  • Although ammonia is commonly carried as a cargo, it is still in the early stages of development as a fuel the regulatory frameworks are still being worked out. The IGF Code currently does not provide prescriptive requirements to cover toxic fuels like ammonia.
  • Ammonia’s lower volumetric efficiency and energy density means much more storage capacity will be required on board. The additional space for fuel may require larger vessel sizes, decreased cargo space or more frequent bunkering.
  • Tanks will need to be designed for temperature and/or pressure control if ammonia is stored in a refrigerated condition, as ammonia continuously evaporates and generates boil-off gas due to heat gain, which increases pressure in tanks if not managed. This storage at low temperatures will require energy.
  • Ammonia burns much more slowly than other fuels and has higher autoignition temperature than conventional fuel oil. This means that sustaining combustion once it gets started is going to be more difficult with ammonia than with other fuels. It will require an initiator/ igniter (combustion promoter) to enhance the burn, and this may cause difficulties in increasing engine output.
  • While carbon-free, ammonia contains nitrogen, and burning it will result in nitrogen oxide (NOx) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. GHG impact of N2O emissions is nearly 300x greater than CO2.

As we highlighted in our previous blogs, members will need to take some key factors into account, regardless of whether they opt for methanol, ammonia, or other potential alternative fuels.

Training personnel onboard and on shore will be critical, as will be continued close collaboration with partners and peers. The shipping industry has traditionally been reluctant to share information, while a lack of clarity and direction has caused some inertia.

To combat this, especially with increasingly stringent deadlines looming on the horizon, members must share innovations, insight, and advice for the benefit of all.

 

Photo credit: Shaah Shahidh on Unsplash
Published: 12 January, 2023

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