Cajun sun powered by methanol

Hexter: There are virtually no barriers to adoption of methanol

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The decarbonization conundrum in the shipping industry persists due to a multitude of challenges, including the high cost of alternative fuels, the lack of infrastructure to support their widespread use, and the need for significant changes to vessel design and operational practices.

Despite the development of various technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells and wind-assisted propulsion, there is no single panacea that can address all these challenges at once. When considering all of these factors, a carbon-free future in the sector seems to be a distant, even fleeting, and intangible, prospect. However, methanol seems to be a solution that can bring benefits today.

“There are virtually no barriers to the adoption of methanol as a marine fuel. The technology has been proven over the last 7 years with over 130,000 operating hours accumulated by WFS,” Paul Hexter, President at Waterfront Shipping, a subsidiary of Methanex, the world’s largest producer of methanol, said in an interview with Offshore Energy.

Hexter believes it is relatively straightforward for shipping companies to adopt methanol versus other alternative fuels, as it is already available in over 120 ports and handled and bunkered similarly to diesel. Furthermore, due to a long history of safe handling, methanol has been described as the lowest-risk fuel compared to LNG, hydrogen, and ammonia. Moreover, it is environmentally benign compared to other options as it dissolves in water and biodegrades rapidly.

Hexter sat down for an interview with our editorial team to share more details on the recent net-zero trans-Atlantic voyage with bio-methanol and the role and outlook of methanol as a decarbonization pathway for the shipping industry.

The voyage was carried out in cooperation with Japanese shipping major Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd. (MOL) on board the dual-fuel vessel Cajun Sun.

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The Cajun Sun, operated by Waterfront Shipping and chartered from MOL, arrived from Geismar, U.S., to Antwerp, Belgium on February 4, fuelled entirely by bio-methanol blended fuel.

The fuel blend is comprised of ISCC-certified bio-methanol that has negative carbon intensity with natural gas-based methanol, produced at Methanex’s facility in Geismar.

The bio-methanol used in the voyage was produced from renewable natural gas, derived from captured methane from animal manure that would have otherwise been emitted into the atmosphere.

Following the completion of the voyage, the classification society Bureau Veritas conducted an audit of the greenhouse gas emission calculations from the bio-methanol fuel blend consumed during the voyage. At the same time, Climate Neutral Commodity, an independent certification party validated the net-zero voyage against best practices as defined by the ISCC and issued the certification, Waterfront Shipping revealed.

Methanex currently has the capability to produce bio-methanol at its ISCC-certified Geismar production facility using renewable natural gas.

“We are assessing other pathways, including carbon capture and storage and e-methanol, to provide low-carbon methanol solutions for the marine industry and other customers,” Hexter noted.

The company is also looking into investment opportunities to convert existing assets into production facilities for low-carbon methanol.

“Our manufacturing facilities have a lifespan of several decades, and the process to make methanol remains largely the same regardless of feedstock used. For these reasons, modifying existing assets to produce lower-carbon methanol is more cost-effective and can have a lower environmental impact than building new facilities. In addition, pursuing staged investments allows us to adjust production based on product demand and feedstock availability,” he noted.

Photo credit Willem Jan Boer from DDC Smart Inspections

Commenting on what inspired the historic voyage, Hexter said that the idea was to demonstrate that the pathway to net-zero emissions and the decarbonization of the shipping industry was possible today with methanol as a marine fuel.

Methanol offers a clear pathway to meeting the International Maritime Organization’s decarbonization goals, he added.

“It is easier and less costly to convert existing vessels to use methanol compared to other alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG),” he pointed out.

Methanol is a liquid fuel at ambient temperature and pressure, which makes it easier to use than other alternative fuels that require cooling or pressurization. It can be used in existing diesel engines, making the conversion process much less expensive than other alternative fuels.

“Relatively minor adaptations are required for diesel engines to use methanol: manufacturers make kits that add an extra methanol fuel system to the basic diesel engine and adapt the valves and injector to deliver methanol fuel. When using methanol, some minor changes to vessel infrastructure are required including additional fuel storage, double-walled piping, and a methanol fuel supply system are also required,” he said.

Established diesel tanks can be used to store methanol with only minor modifications needed resulting in an easy and cost-competitive supply of methanol to new locations, at low cost. As a liquid fuel, there is a minimal incremental cost to adopt methanol using the existing bunkering infrastructure.”

The fuel is already gaining popularity among vessel owners, with orders for methanol dual-fuel vessels coming in from some of the world’s largest shipping companies, including Maersk, CMA CGM, and COSCO. In fact, over 20 methanol dual-fuel vessels are already in operation, mostly by Waterfront Shipping, and this number is expected to grow to 125+ over the next few years, representing 3.5 mmtpa demand potential.

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Hexter added that methanol dual-fuel engines are available today and proven.

“This technology is flexible – it can burn diesel or methanol from conventional or renewable sources, or a combination based on what future regulations require. Methanex and our partners including MAN pioneered the methanol dual-fuel engine and we continue to work in collaboration to advance the technology. Today, the methanol dual fuel engine has advanced to 3rd generation technology.”

While most of the vessels operating or on order use MAN 2-stroke technology (i.e. Waterfront Shipping, Maersk, other containerships), there is also a growing number of leading engine manufacturers, including Wartsila, Rolls-Royce/MTU, ABC, MAN 4-stroke, Caterpillar, WinGD and others committing to producing methanol engines as more shipping will open up the growth for methanol-fueled vessels across the marine sector, he noted.

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Speaking on the sustainability of methanol and its potential to become a fully green solution, Hexter said:

“As renewable methanol is physically/chemically identical as conventional methanol, there would be no compatibility issues or further engine investment required, allowing a seamless, gradual transition to lower CO2 emissions (IMO and other regional/company CO2 targets). We expect that blending of green, blue and traditional methanol will be an important pathway to customers as we transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Conventional methanol is a cost-competitive marine fuel on an energy-equivalent basis with other low-sulphur marine fuels, he continued.

“We see significant demand potential emerging in the marine sector as a large and growing number of shipping companies are ordering (or considering) methanol vessels but most of these vessels are not on the water yet; we anticipate increasing interest in lower carbon methanol fuels in the coming years as more methanol vessels are introduced and greenhouse gas regulations become more stringent,” he said.

However, the adoption of methanol as a marine fuel is not without its challenges. The renewable methanol market is still small and growing, and the cost of producing lower-carbon methanol is still generally higher than what customers are willing to pay for, Hexter pointed out, adding that the ‘green premium’ remains a key challenge to scaling the production of blue or green methanol.

Nevertheless, Hexter believes that regulation and compliance will be the key drivers for shipowners to switch to cleaner fuels, as they are likely to be more expensive than traditional marine fuels.

“It is reasonable to expect that regulations or customer demand will be needed to drive higher uptake,” he concluded.

“While we are seeing the gap narrow, this remains a key challenge to scaling the production of blue or green methanol.”