Methanol Is Ready for Use as Marine Fuel

In preparation for the International Maritime Organization’s upcoming 2020 sulphur limit, the shipping industry started considering a number of solutions, including low sulphur fuel oil (LSFO), marine gas oil (MGO) and Exhaust Gas Treatment (scrubbers).

While some experts believe that the answer lies in a replacement for dirty fuels, others believe that scrubbers are the way to go, however, the industry expressed its concerns over the costs of these solutions in more than one occasion.

World Maritime News spoke to Chris Chatterton, Chief Operating Officer, the Methanol Institute, on the solutions offered to the shipping industry, with a focus on methanol as an option, and the costs which shipowners could face as of 2020.

“The solutions on offer to the shipping industry range from the expensive and unpalatable to the elegant and ultimately highly sustainable,” according to Chatterton.

Methanol is the option that has probably received the least coverage despite offering a pathway to a sustainable, 2020-compliant, low carbon future for the industry, achievable at manageable cost and with minimal changes to the operational profile of the majority of affected vessels, he explained.

When asked about the current stage of development of methanol as a replacement for dirty marine fuels, Chatterton said that methanol “is ready to go as a marine fuel now, and could be playing a much bigger role post-2020.” There is a number of reasons for this, he explained, the first being that as the marine bunker market shifts from spot to the use of contract terms, methanol becomes ever more competitive against low sulphur fuel oil (LSFO) or gasoil.

As explained, there are very few technical challenges to adopting methanol as marine fuel on newbuilds or conversions and certainly fewer than with LNG.

“No changes were made inside the MAN 2-stroke and Wärtsilä 4-stroke methanol dual-fuel engines on the water today, just the addition of new injectors and fuel rail systems.”

“For the fuel supply system, it would be usual to install double-walled piping and possibly the use of nitrogen as inert gas in the fuel storage tank itself as an additional safety measure, as methanol is a liquid at ambient temperature and in the event of a leak would vent with gravity (in contrast, LNG would vent into the atmosphere as a gas).”

This also makes it simple to perform engine work or repairs to fuel delivery systems as methanol can be easily purged from fuel lines for completely ‘dry’ work with little ‘clean up’ as with a traditional fuel, he added. Methanol dual-fuel engines also feature sealing oil for the injection ports, which trap any potential leaks.

“It should also be considered that the cost of a methanol-fuelled vessel would be considerably less than a gas-fuelled ship, mainly due to methanol’s drop-in fuel characteristics, versus cryogenic technology.”

“In terms of converting an existing vessel, we estimate that the costs for methanol would be 75% less than that for LNG.”

Additionally, in terms of its emissions performance, Chatterton said that methanol ticks all the boxes, with 2020-compliant SOx, NOx and PM emissions and providing what will ultimately be a carbon-free future for shipping, easily allowing it to meet the industry’s ambitions in respect of the Paris Agreement.

“Methanol-powered ships are in operation now and the revision of the IGF Code by IMO will fully complete the regulatory picture within a few years. In the interim, classification society guidance is available today. There have been a number of projects and studies into methanol’s viability and suitability as a marine fuel, which have concluded that there are no obstacles to its adoption by the industry alongside other clean conventional and alternatives.”

Citing IHS Markit, he said that global methanol demand will increase from 49m metric tonnes in 2010 to 95m mt by 2021. Given methanol’s lower energy content, today’s global marine fuel market would be the equivalent of 650 million tonnes per annum of methanol.

Speaking about the spread of interest in methanol as fuel, Chatterton said that the interest ranges from small pilot boats to tankers, ferries and potentially cruise ships, as it is ideally suited for application on short-sea shipping, coastal and inland vessels that spend much of their time in an emissions control area close to land or large centres of population.

Availability of Methanol

Chatterton: The availability of methanol is one of its strong points as a marine fuel. As a widely used petrochemical feedstock, it is present at hundreds of ports worldwide – and at nearly all the current centres for conventional marine bunkering. Methanol is the world’s most widely shipped chemical commodity, with an estimated 26.7 million tonnes shipped in 2017, according to Clarksons Platou.

What needs to be developed is the bunkering infrastructure to support widespread distribution – though this is also true of LNG as fuel.

Options include bunkering from trucks (as with early LNG as marine fuel projects), or via dedicated vessels and it is perfectly feasible for existing bunker barges to be converted to handle methanol.

Onshore storage of methanol is simpler than LNG because no cryogenic facilities are required as methanol is a liquid at ambient temperature and there are some well understood and readily available methods of safely storing and handling methanol that present no exceptional safety risks.

Methanol vs. LNG

Chatterton: The shipping industry has certainly flirted with LNG as fuel and it has found it to be a viable solution for non-gas carriers. However, conversions and newbuildings are expensive, technically complex and operations are challenged in terms of supply infrastructure. Critically, while LNG solves the SOx/NOx emissions slate, its CO2 and methane emissions profile means it cannot be a long term solution for the decarbonization of shipping. Further, LNG requires dedicated bunker supply chains that require enormous sums of public/private funding.

Methanol as marine fuel has few of these disadvantages. As a liquid fuel it is easy to store and handle despite having a lower flashpoint than conventional fuels and it is less harmful to the environment or marine life in the event of a spill.

Retrofits and newbuildings using methanol as marine fuel are simpler and cheaper than LNG and the experience gained on the ropax ferry Stena Germanica and tankers operated by Waterfront Shipping is that methanol is well-suited as a low emission, high performance marine fuel.

Regarding the topic of THE marine fuel of the future, Chatterton said that shipping is waking up to the fact that it is moving from a single-fuel industry to a multi-fuel model as it transitions from a carbon-intensive industry to one with a low carbon future.

“Methanol may not be the fuel of the masses by 2020, but it could be the marine fuel of choice for a broad category of vessels through the remainder of the century and beyond.”

Interview conducted by Erna Penjic, Editor, World Maritime News
Image Courtesy: Methanex/The Methanol Institute/Stena Line