COLUMN | Devising a strategy for future fuels? [Grey Power]

Wes Amelie, a 1,036TEU feeder container ship, will use liquefied SNG (synthetic natural gas) produced from renewable electrical energy as drop-in fuel
Wes Amelie, a 1,036TEU feeder container ship, will use liquefied SNG (synthetic natural gas) produced from renewable electrical energy as drop-in fuel

What on earth are people going to be pouring into their diesel engines to support combustion, when the last oil well is capped and hydrocarbons are finally prohibited? It is all very interesting to consider learned papers about "all-electric" ships and wonderful advances in batteries, but realism suggests that the big diesels which propel the bulk of world shipping will be very unlikely to be made redundant by anything extrapolated from something shuttling between two charging points on either side of a Norwegian fjord.

Unless we are going to entirely shun international trade (already recommended by more extreme Greens) it's the fuel which will provide the key to meeting carbon targets which have been prescribed , some say, more in hope than expectation. There is already a range of alternatives, although all require far more substantial research into their practicability, in which cost, availability and infrastructure will all play a significant role.

I thought about this matter of infrastructure recently, when calling at a motorway service station for food and fuel. There was a small queue of all-electric vehicles waiting to charge up before we went for our lunch, and it was significant that the queue had not appreciably moved when we emerged. And yet we are being urged by governments, shelling out taxpayers' money to subsidise these cars to "go electric" and save the planet. Practicality is everything in this business, not making virtuous signals, although it is not fashionable to make such a point.

Another hated hydrocarbon

There was a telling report in a technical journal about the problems entailed in converting a large containership into an LNG-fuelled vessel, even though the ship had been built with this conversion in mind with dual-fuel machinery installed.

Some 300 container spaces were taken out of revenue-earning commission to provide the space for the LNG fuel and its treatment. Presumably the owner was satisfied that the economics of the conversion would add up, but it was a realistic picture of what would be involved in such an operation.

Whether you are considering LNG, methanol, ammonia or hydrogen – all of which have been mooted as fuels of the future – all involve massive unknowns. And with LNG, increasingly regarded as the "bridging" option between current fuels and something more radical, there is already a vocal body of green opinion gathering momentum and objecting to its effects upon the climate because of methane slip, and the undeniable fact that it is just another hated hydrocarbon.

It is worth remembering that in 10 years' time the industry is committed to reducing carbon intensity by at least 40 per cent, based on 2008 levels. It is however encouraging that both technical and operational improvements are expected to go a long way towards meeting this target without dramatic changes to the fuel mix.

Slower steaming, optimising voyage speeds, maintaining machinery for peak efficiency and a combination of underwater and aerodynamic enhancements are aggregating to reward those operators who are putting in the efforts towards meeting emission reduction targets. And efficiency brings its economic rewards, while doing its bit for the environment.

But whatever is done operationally or technically to approach the 2030 targets, it won't be enough to reduce carbon intensity to the 2050 targets without huge changes in the marine fuel regime. And already there are several groups of increasingly militant activists, at various levels of extremism, demanding that the agreed international mitigation measures to remove carbon are rewritten. If one was devising long term acquisition policies in the marine transport sector, it has been suggested that a crystal ball might be useful.

"Can we craft techniques that will enable people to operate safely with highly volatile fuels?"

Will LNG survive the assaults upon its claims to be a valid "bridge" between today's fuels and what might appear commercial, even ten years from now? Might synthetic natural gas prove to be a possible alternative? How long might it take to produce an infrastructure capable of producing acceptably sustainable fuels in the sort of quantities that are required to keep the world's fleet motoring on?

Because aside from LNG, which alone is capable of fuelling whole fleets at an acceptable cost, there is nothing other than small-scale experimental operations currently on the horizon, with single ships undertaking trials with methanol, various biofuels, SNG or hydrogen fuel cells. It is a measure of the challenge that has to be faced.

The North P&I Club recently published a useful compendium of "future fuels" and it was difficult to seize on any of these as the technical favourite for the questing ship operator. Is biofuel really sustainable when half the world's tropical forests are already being devastated to provide for the existing land-based customers?

Even if we can produce enormous quantities of hydrogen using sustainable energy from great forests of wind-farms, how do you manage to carry sufficient hydrogen bunkers to take a big ship half way around the world? Can we craft techniques that will enable people to operate safely with highly volatile fuels?

There is a somewhat worrying assumption that sustainably fuelling the world fleet is a matter for the maritime industry alone, with governments sitting back and waiting for acceptable results. But decarbonisation of marine fuel to a reasonable timescale is only going to happen if governments play their part in the massive research and development efforts which will be required, along with industry. One hopes that this message is getting across.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World