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Wartsila: Methanol as marine fuel – is it the solution you are looking for?

28 Feb 2023

Technology group Wärtsilä on Monday (20 February) published the Insight article “Methanol as marine fuel – is it the solution you are looking for?” to help ship owners and operators navigate the advantages and issues of using the product as a marine fuel. An excerpt of the article is as follows:

What is methanol?

Methanol (methyl alcohol, CH3OH or MeOH) is a biodegradable wood alcohol used to make everything from plastics to paints and pharmaceuticals. Although it is toxic and highly flammable, it dissolves in water and biodegrades quickly. Methanol has been used in industrial applications for over 100 years, but it’s now also showing great promise as a clean and sustainable future fuel for maritime applications.

What types of methanol are there?

Broadly speaking, methanol can be categorised into fossil-based methanol and renewable methanol. Fossil-based methanol is produced from coal or natural gas. Renewable methanol can be made from things like biomass or captured CO2 combined with green hydrogen.

What colour is methanol?

  • Methanol is a colourless liquid, but colour names are used to show what it’s made from:
  • Green methanol is made from biomass or captured CO2 and green hydrogen
  • Blue methanol is made using blue hydrogen in combination with carbon capture technology
  • Grey methanol is produced using natural gas
  • Brown methanol is produced using coal.

Green methanol is the most environmentally sustainable. Blue methanol still significantly reduces well-to-tank CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels like diesel. One of the biggest challenges for maritime decarbonisation is that most methanol today is either grey or brown. All types of methanol could lead to a tank-to-wake CO2 reduction of about 7% compared to diesel. However, if we take the well-to-wake approach (from production to utilisation), the CO2 impact of grey and brown methanol is worse than that of diesel. This is why green and blue methanol are the only real alternatives when targeting well-to-tank GHG reduction.

Is methanol as fuel good for the environment?

The main benefit of green methanol is that it produces less CO2 than diesel combustion, as well as lower SOx and NOx emissions. The amount you can reduce emissions by will depend on the load your engines are running at. Studies have shown that, taking a tank-to-wake approach, by using methanol instead of heavy fuel oil (HFO):

  • CO2 emissions can be cut by 7%
  • SOx emissions can be cut by 99%, and
  • NOx emissions can be cut by 60%.

Methanol also biodegrades rapidly in water, which also makes it less of a risk to the environment than many alternatives.

Is methanol as marine fuel bad for the environment?

The CO2 footprint of methanol varies according to how it’s produced and transported, with fossil-based methanol generating more lifetime CO2 emissions than diesel. This makes green methanol the right choice for decarbonisation. Since the methanol molecule is the same whether it is grey, brown, blue or green, blending methanol is also a viable option to support the transition from conventional to renewable marine fuels.

How can methanol help with decarbonisation in shipping and the maritime energy transition?

The methanol molecule – CH3OH – is the same whether it is produced from grey, brown, blue or green feedstocks. This means you can blend it to help you transition gradually towards using a greater percentage of sustainable green methanol.

Is methanol expensive?

Compared to diesel operation, fuel expenses can be up to 15 times higher depending on the type of methanol consumed, its price and the share of energy provided by methanol. Although fuel expenses are higher with methanol than with diesel, this should be considered in terms of today’s regulatory environment. Vessels that fail to meet CII and EEXI targets will not be allowed to operate any longer. So the extra cost of the fuel should be compared not only with today’s fossil fuel price but with the cost of a brand new and more efficient ship and with the possible losses due to a mandatory stop of operations.

The Powerzeek Energy Platform has added methanol to its online marketplace in response to increased enquiries from shipowners. Powerzeek makes it easier for shipowners and trucking companies to find and buy cleaner fuels at the best available price.

Is methanol safe onboard ships?

From the perspective of onboard safety, there are well-established rules and regulations pertaining to the use of methanol as a marine fuel in the form of the IMO’s MSC.1-Circ.1621 – Interim Guidelines For The Safety Of Ships Using Methyl/Ethyl Alcohol As Fuel. Additionally, Wärtsilä has developed a safety concept for methanol engines that acts as an internal design guideline for all marine projects that involve using methanol as a fuel.

Where can I buy methanol as fuel for ships?

If you’re looking for methanol suppliers for ships, in 2020 the Methanol Institute confirmed that methanol was available at about 100 ports around the world.

Maritime-dedicated infrastructure for methanol transportation is still in the early stages of development but is expanding all the time.

Note: The full Insight article “Methanol as marine fuel – is it the solution you are looking for?” is available at Wartsila’s website here


Photo credit: NYK, Waterfront Shipping, Vopak, TankMatch
Published: 28 February, 2023

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