Methanol as fuel: creating a pathway to cleaner ports and shipping

Chris Chatterton
Chris Chatterton
There are currently eight ships trading internationally operating on Methanol as fuel including the ropax Stena Germanica Photo: Stena Line
There are currently eight ships trading internationally operating on Methanol as fuel including the ropax Stena Germanica Photo: Stena Line
Methanol is bunkered in Gothenburg courtesy of an on-shore bunkering facility from Technocean Photo: Technoocean
Methanol is bunkered in Gothenburg courtesy of an on-shore bunkering facility from Technocean Photo: Technoocean

The maritime and ports industries are facing a future increasingly defined by environmental regulations which require progressively cleaner fuels to improve air quality, writes Chris Chatterton, chief operating officer, The Methanol Institute.

The maritime industry is already embracing alternatives, in particular LNG, as a fuel that can meet 2020 SOx and NOx emissions requirements. While the concept has been proven, wider take-up has been slow for a number of reasons.

This has encouraged the industry to consider other fuels that can deliver not just 2020 compliance but potentially provide a pathway for a low carbon future. Chief among these is Methanol, which is compliant with 2020 sulphur regulations and ready for future carbon emission targets.

Short sea shipping, ferries, workboats and harbour craft – sectors that have flirted with LNG as a fuel – are all potential markets for Methanol. The environmental argument is irrefutable: Like LNG Methanol addresses the SOx and Particulate Matter (PM) emissions problem but also offers a future pathway to a low and zero-carbon emissions profile, allowing shipping to be part of the solution to global warming.

This biodegradable alcohol, which does not produce soot because it has no carbon-to-carbon bonds, would be an ideal alternative to heavy fuel oil in polar shipping. As the world’s most widely shipped chemical commodity, Methanol’s further advantage is its availability at port locations around the world. Wherever you see tank farms at port facilities, you are likely to find Methanol storage capacity.

Storage and bunkering

Its low emissions profile and ready availability mean Methanol has potential application as fuel for short-sea, inland and offshore ferry and even cruise tonnage, providing a simple roadmap for improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at sea and ashore.

Ports are often considered to be air pollution ‘bubbles’, because they are the source of emissions from diesel-powered port equipment and trucks, as well as from vessels. But Methanol can also be considered as a viable substitute for diesel in a range in a range of port activities, helping to reduce primary sources air pollution to surrounding communities.

Because Methanol is liquid at ambient temperature, it is easy to handle and does not require the cryogenic storage necessary with LNG. This means that Methanol can be stored in conventional shoreside tanks and in ballast tanks onboard ship, so no dedicated storage capacity is needed.

Methanol as a marine fuel has a safety profile that deserves to be better understood. Its safe handling practices draw on a long history and experience in shipping and industrial use.

Methanol is miscible in water and so is far less hazardous to the environment than diesel or heavy fuel oil. In the event of an accidental spill during bunkering, Methanol will biodegrade rapidly and will vent with gravity, unlike LNG which vents directly into the atmosphere as a gas.

As a low flashpoint fuel, Methanol is subject to the revision of the IGF Code and should have full regulatory approval by 2023. Equipment manufacturers have responded, with engine maker MAN Energy Solutions investing substantially in a dual fuel main engine capable of burning a range of low sulphur fuels efficiently and safely, with an impressive emissions scorecard for the vessels already running on Methanol.

The eight ships trading internationally on Methanol as fuel include the Stena ropax Stena Germanica and seven Methanol tankers operated by Waterfront Shipping - with four more expected to enter into service in 2019.

The methanol fuel used in the Waterfront dual-fuel vessels is stored in one of the two multiple purpose cargo/slops/methanol fuel tanks, which can be connected and disconnected from the vessel’s cargo system depending on need.

For the bunkering procedure, the tanks are connected to the cargo system and then fully disconnected once the bunkering is complete. This risk-assessed and Class-approved operation takes place at the loading terminal but could take place at any tanker terminal which handles Methanol.

Because bunkering is no different from loading of Methanol as cargo it makes the process highly efficient, taking no more than one hour for every 1000 cu m of Methanol. Filling a typical 1500 cu m tank takes no more than 1.5 extra hours during cargo operations and the main consideration is whether to use the capacity of the multipurpose tanks for cargo or for Methanol as fuel.

A low carbon future

Methanol and LNG share the advantages of low SOx, NOx and PM emissions but LNG is still the source of high CO2 emissions in everyday operations – both in its transportation and as a fuel, due to methane slip, which can be as high as 4%.

Methanol on the other hand has close to zero ‘in sector’ CO2 emissions, which means it can be used as a solution to the IMO’s recently agreed targets to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 50% of 2008 levels by 2050.

The higher cost of conventional fuel expected post-2020 will begin to make Methanol increasingly price-competitive as a marine fuel, it also de-risks the investment in newbuilds and conversions, because owners can use conventional Methanol for 2020 compliance then progressively blend in Biomethanol as more becomes available.

Biomethanol can be produced renewably from landfill gas, biomass, or by utilising concentrated solar energy in a thermos-chemical reactor to re-energise CO2 into CO to produce syngas (a mixture of CO and Hydrogen), to then feed a methanol synthesis reactor, providing a very low/zero carbon fuel ‘from well to wake’.

Several existing plants are already producing low-carbon methanol through a carbon capture/re-injection production loop. Methanol production offers a wide range of feedstock and process technologies for ’future proof’, zero-carbon marine fuels.

Industry acceptance

The shipping industry is already beginning to undertake the research it needs to drive the development of next-generation biofuels, including Biomethanol.

UK-based E4Tech was commissioned by the Platform for Sustainable Biofuels to draw up a master plan for CO2-reduction in the Dutch shipping sector using biofuels, analysing a range of products to understand their potential for adoption in the shipping sector.

Through qualitative analysis of GHG reduction potential, readiness of production, cost and compatibility with the current vessel fleet, it concluded that Biomethanol is highly attractive to the inland and short-sea shipping sectors because its energy density suits vessels with regular port calls, suggesting close dialogue with ports will be necessary to drive change.

Research undertaken by Lloyd’s Register and University Maritime Advisory Services for the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) concluded that biofuels could be the most feasible and cost-effective means of compliance for some ship types.

Alternatives including hydrogen fuel cells, electric power and biofuels were evaluated using variable supply scenarios and different vessel types with results suggesting that biofuels are likely to be the most economically attractive for the post-2030 shipping industry.

The Sustainable Marine Methanol (SUMMETH) project backed the increased use of Methanol as a marine fuel, concluding that there are no obstacles to its use in a converted diesel engine.

It found that small vessel conversion project is both feasible and cost-effective, with levels of safety that easily meet existing requirements. Switching to Methanol would offer immediate environmental benefits, including close to zero SOx and PM emissions and significantly lower NOx emissions compared to conventional marine fuels or biodiesel.

Finally, the MethaShip project, conducted under the auspices of the Research and Development Department at the Meyer Werft shipyard in partnership with Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft and Lloyd’s Register, considered prospects for a Methanol-powered cruiseships and ro-pax ferries.

Its central conclusion is that Biomethanol is a fuel with a future, one which offers the potential for implementing an ambitious maritime climate protection strategy. Some technical and financial details remain to be clarified before Methanol can be used more widely in shipping, however, in the medium term a breakthrough is possible if a statutory framework can be established to evaluate holistic evaluation of CO2 emissions reduction.

While achieving compliance with 2020 will be painful in the short term, realising the IMO’s ambitions for carbon reduction by 2050 will be a far greater challenge for the ports and shipping industries.

It will require the adoption of new fuel technologies and processes that will require co-operation between shipbuilders, engine manufacturers and classification societies, with research into new propulsion systems facilitated by governments within an IMO framework.

What is clear is that new fuels such as Methanol and Biomethanol will play a significant role in helping these industries achieve that change and help shape a cleaner, more sustainable future.

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