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No Silver Bullet

From hydrogen fuel cells and methanol to biodiesel and ammonia, it will take more than one solution to get to net zero. It will also take solutions that go beyond technology.

Ammonia tank

Published May 14, 2023 4:03 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2023 edition.)

For over a century, ships have been propelled by fossil fuels. But as the world comes to grips with the climate crisis and the rapid need to cut carbon dioxide emissions, the shipping industry is taking a good, hard look in the mirror to clean up its act.

Ocean-going vessels are responsible for three percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. While this amount deals a huge blow to the global environment, it also offers a major opportunity for a single industry to have an impact.

In 2018, the IMO released its Initial Greenhouse Gas Strategy, which pledged to cut emissions from shipping to 40 percent of 2008 levels by 2030 and 70 percent by 2050. Companies around the world, from education providers to multinational corporations, are contributing to the effort.

Martin White, CEO at Stream Marine Training Group, an industry leader in training for alternative fuels and systems, says, “It’s probably one of the biggest-ever technical transitions in any industry that’s ever happened. In only a few decades, we have to change the way we operate our whole industry. We’re running into so many different ways to decarbonize at one time. There isn’t a single solution, so we have to prepare multiple pathways to retrain people over the next decade.”

International Chamber of Shipping Secretary General Guy Platten adds: “The maritime industry’s green transition will consist of a multi-fuel future as there is no single replacement for affordable and readily available current fossil fuels. Biofuels, e-fuels, natural gas and hydrogen derivatives are all likely to play a role in the future fuel mix for shipping as well as carbon capture. New production ecosystems must be built rapidly across the globe to meet decarbonization goals.”

Those goals require seafarers who are able to work with the newest forms of energy. White estimates that, “Between now and 2050, over a million seafarers will have to be trained within an alternative discipline using a new fuel,” and Stream Marine Training has been doing its part: “Back in 2017, we became the first provider in the U.K. and one of the first in the world to become accredited to train to the new IMO standards, which was basic and advanced IGF (International Code of Safety for Ships using Gases or other Low-flashpoint Fuels) training.”

In the six years since, the company has trained more than 1,500 seafarers on alternative fuels under the IGF code.

One challenge for educators and the wider shipping industry is that there’s little consensus regarding the dominant fuel of the future. Otto Koch, Chief Operations Officer at Norway’s SEAM, says: “We see that with the level of technology that’s currently available, none of the energy carriers/energy sources provide ‘the complete package’ in terms of safety, complexity, available support systems, energy density and so forth. Nor are they perfect in regard to which vessel segment the different technologies and energy carriers fit best with, meaning that we as an industry need to continue to explore, develop and optimize solutions.”

The Promise of Hydrogen

One specific solution that has attracted significant interest from SEAM is hydrogen. As a system developer and integrator with experience in future fuels, SEAM is contributing to a first-of-its-kind ammonia and fuel cell project with U.S.-based Amogy. The project will pioneer an ammonia-powered, zero-emission tugboat – just the type of vessel that will help guide the world’s fleet into a greener future. 

Hydrogen fuel cells are benefiting from industry-wide enthusiasm. Mark Sackler, Director of Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen, says, “In terms of decarbonization, hydrogen has a big role to play. Simply stated, batteries are practical for small vessels with short ranges.” Yet for larger vessels sailing farther distances, Sackler notes, “Size, weight and cost make them impractical for greater power and range needs. Depending on the function, liquid hydrogen may be preferable to gaseous.”

Infinity is working on a number of relevant solutions, namely its hydrogen-oxygen Air-Independent PEM fuel cell power systems (AIP) for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), which use its patented H2/O2 PEM fuel cell technology originally developed for NASA missions. “These systems provide a major benefit by significantly extending underwater missions from days to weeks or months,” Sackler explains, “allowing them to be dock-launched. This can, in turn, minimize or eliminate the need for accompanying tender boats, which are expensive and present their own environmental issues.” 

Recently, the company received its first commercial underwater contract for this technology, which has also been funded by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research. Now, to serve surface marine markets, Infinity is working to develop H2/air versions of its fuel cells to provide power for scaled-up heavy-duty missions.

Fuel-management provider Integr8 Fuels is another company charting new frontiers in hydrogen, and COO Pablo Di Nieri underscores their potential “to be the most environmentally friendly, assuming the fuel can be produced in a green way.” One major caveat is that hydrogen-based fuels can be challenging to deal with from a handling, storage and engine-technology perspective.

Nevertheless, Di Nieri contends that, “Whether it’s the green versions of ammonia, e-methanol, e-methane or pure hydrogen-powered fuel cells, producing sufficient volumes of these fuels will be critical to reaching net zero shipping by the middle of the century, and hopefully sooner.” This is especially critical because a second major green fuel, biofuels, may be constrained by lack of access to feedstocks. Higher blending targets and rising demand from the trucking and aviation industries are also putting pressure on existing biofuel sources.

Biofuels – a “Drop-In” Alternative

Still, biofuels are enjoying support from major oil and gas companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron. ExxonMobil is investigating the alternative fuel alongside hydrogen, methanol and ammonia. One representative notes, “Lower-emission biofuels are a ‘drop-in’ alternative that can be used in existing engines without the need for extensive modifications. These biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least one-third compared with conventional marine fuel oil.”

Jon Scharingson, Executive Director, Strategic Initiatives at Chevron Renewable Energy Group (CREG), says: “We’re seeing tremendous demand from the shipping industry for lower carbon fuel solutions that can be implemented today, and biodiesel is providing these solutions at commercial scale now. We consider biodiesel to be one of the simplest and most effective, immediate solutions to reducing carbon emissions in the shipping industry today.”

Shipowners don’t need to make changes to existing storage infrastructure or engine technology, making it easy and cost-effective for them to begin transitioning their fleets. CREG offers a number of bio-based fuels within its EnDura FuelsTM family. InfiniDTM biodiesel is a lower-carbon, bio-based diesel solution which, when blended with MGO or LSFO, can help shipping fleets meet their lower carbon, performance and operational goals – again, generally, without any infrastructure changes. 

Beyond Technology

To meet the IMO’s decarbonization targets, more than technological solutions are needed. Integr8’s Di Nieri stresses that “price, availability and regulatory incentives” are also key to encouraging the use of future fuels: “A regulatory landscape without regional imbalances and a uniform carbon price can level the playing field for shipowners and help incentivize broad uptake of alternative fuels over the years and decades.”

In this spirit, last October the European Parliament approved a draft of the FuelEU Maritime regulation, which proposed a mandate for companies operating at least three ships larger than 5,000 gross tons to use at least two percent renewable fuels of non-biological origin by 2030. Such a move would encourage uptake of hydrogen-based fuels, at least in Europe. “A global transition will to a great extent hinge on a breakthrough at the IMO level,” Di Nieri says. “All eyes will be on MEPC 80 this summer.”

Shipping energy markets are also modernizing. Daivaras Anuzis, Founder & CEO of Moorio, a marketplace that welcomes all suppliers who provide any fuels to vessels, laid out his company’s objectives: “We’ve built an independent marketplace where any vessel owner or operator can easily connect with trusted and verified bunker fuel suppliers and track order workflow from the beginning until the end – digitally. Marketplaces in general are gaining more traction and becoming very important not only in B2C but also in B2B sectors due to many advantages that it offers compared to regular business models – from bringing more transparency to reducing sales-related costs and allowing better prices.”

Beyond making markets more efficient and transparent, policy nudges will also help the global shipping fleet decarbonize. “A global economic measure would be an effective tool to reduce the enormous costs of a large-scale transition away from fossil fuels,” say ICS’s Platten. The ICS recently submitted a proposal for a “Fund and Reward” scheme to the IMO. If given the green light by IMO member states, it would hasten the uptake and deployment of zero-carbon fuels. Lowering their price is crucial as they currently cost at least two or three times more than conventional marine fuel.

The ICS is also partnering with other organizations including the International Association of Ports & Harbors (IAPH) and the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), along with five governments – the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Uruguay, Panama and Norway – to create a platform that breaks down silos in order to tackle the world’s collective challenge: catalyzing the energy transition. 

Spillover Effects

CEM also acknowledges that the shipping industry’s ongoing decarbonization efforts will have spillover effects onshore. Platten explains, “The CEM Hubs recognize that the majority of the off-takers for the new zero emission fuels will be land-based industry and not shipping.” The endeavor seeks to accelerate the deployment of infrastructure and de-risk the investment necessary for ensuring that the world has access to low-carbon fuels.

Part of the strategy is to produce new fuels close to ports so that the maritime sector can easily transport and use them. Such systems thinking can guide an efficient and effective green transition across the shipping industry and beyond. Platten concludes, “Collaboration across the entire value chain is the only way we can forge a path to a decarbonized future. Not just for shipping, but for the whole world.” 

Dr. Mia Bennett is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Washington.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.