Approximately 80% of the world’s traded goods move via ship. But the shipping industry is also responsible for 2%-3% of global carbon emissions, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. While shipping is one of the most efficient modes of transportation, the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels has made the path to decarbonization difficult.
That has shone a spotlight on e-methanol as a potential solution.
E-methanol is produced by combining green hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide from industrial sources. It still releases some greenhouse gases as it burns, but it emits less carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxide and particulate matter than conventional marine fuel. Because the green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy and the carbon dioxide used is captured, e-methanol is considered an alternative net-carbon-neutral fuel.
Ammonia, battery power, biofuels, hydrogen, wind propulsion and liquefied natural gas are additional low- and zero-carbon marine fuels currently being researched and developed.
Ramping up e-methanol production and use in the shipping industry depends on the International Maritime Organization and cost and technology factors, Gregory Dolan, CEO at The Methanol Institute, told FreightWaves. There has been debate about whether the IMO will take a tank-to-wake or well-to-wake approach when approving sustainable marine fuels in the future.
Dolan said a tank-to-wake approach does not take into account the production, storage and transportation processes for fuels. It would not distinguish between differences in green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy, and gray hydrogen, which is produced using natural gas steam reforming. These differences in production can have a large impact on the life cycle emissions of a fuel.
A.P. Moller – Maersk’s bet on e-methanol has sent signals that e-methanol’s potential to decarbonize shipping has piqued shippers’ interest. Maersk’s 172-meter-long feeder vessel is being designed to run on either e-methanol or very low sulfur fuel oil and is scheduled to begin operating in Northern Europe in 2023.
E-methanol is available now, and it can be used to fuel conventional ships with minor engine and storage modifications, Dolan said. However, similar to many developing alternative fuels, there is not currently a large supply available.
“In pioneering this technology, it will be a significant challenge to source an adequate supply of carbon neutral methanol within the timeline we have set ourselves,” Berit Hinnemann, senior innovation project manager at Maersk, said in a release.
Göteborg, Sweden-based power-to-fuel company Liquid Wind has a lofty goal to produce more than 25 million tons of e-methanol at 500 facilities annually by 2050. Along with other companies investing in renewable methanol technologies, Liquid Wind could help provide the carbon-neutral marine fuel that Maersk and other shippers will need.
That 25 million tons would be 5% of the estimated global marine fuel demand in 2020, according to a Seabury Capital white paper. Assuming the demand for shipping increases as expected by 2050, Liquid Wind’s e-methanol would account for a smaller portion of the global shipping fuel mix.
E-methanol is carbon neutral, and in theory, “there’s no limit to how much we can make,” Claes Fredriksson, founder and CEO of Liquid Wind, told FreightWaves. Because it is liquid at ambient temperature, e-methanol can be used like any other fuel, Fredriksson said. It also doesn’t settle like heavy fuel or have sediment in it, making it an easy fuel to store for long periods of time.
Liquid Wind e-methanol timeline
|2022||Construction of Liquid Wind’s first plant, FlagshipONE, will begin on the northeast coast of Sweden in Örnsköldsvik.|
|Early 2024||FlagshipONE will begin producing e-methanol.|
|2030||Liquid Wind will build and operate 10 facilities in Sweden before expanding internationally.|
|2050||Liquid Wind will produce e-methanol at 500 facilities worldwide.|
Each facility will have the capacity to produce 140 tons of e-methanol daily. According to Liquid Wind, each of its facilities will upcycle 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide into more than 50,000 tons of carbon-neutral e-methanol, reducing emissions by 100,000 tons annually. That is the carbon dioxide emissions equivalent of taking 21,748 passenger cars off the road each year.
Liquid Wind is partnering with Carbon Clean to capture carbon dioxide from industrial sources. Carbon Clean aims to collect carbon dioxide from large emitters for less than $30 per metric ton. Siemens Energy will provide the electrolyzer technology to produce about 1.1 tons of green hydrogen per hour. Of all the components in the e-methanol production process, Fredriksson said producing green hydrogen by using electrolyzers to split water into oxygen and hydrogen takes the most energy.
He said the company will use wind energy in Northern Europe and solar energy in Spain and France to power the electrolyzers, but it depends on what renewable energy is most affordable in each area. The EU requires “additionality,” meaning that Liquid Wind won’t be able to use existing renewable energy to power its plants. Instead, it must build new capacity for renewable energy.
Another partner, Haldor Topsoe, will mix and compress the green hydrogen and carbon dioxide to create methanol. The methanol synthesis process compresses the gaseous mixture into liquid as it moves through pipes over catalysts, producing 5.8 tons of e-methanol per hour, Fredriksson said.
Alfa Laval, a Sweden-based heat transfer, centrifugal separation and fluid-handling company, will provide heat exchangers to minimize wasted energy throughout the process.
“We can use the energy that we get left over from the electrolyzers to do our carbon capture. We optimize as much as we can — the heat energy — so that we are not consuming too much because everything is obviously important to save so that we can get better value and a lower-cost e-methanol at the tail end,” said Fredriksson, who has more than 20 years of experience working with hydrogen and clean energy technology.
Why e-methanol? Fish and people can breathe easier
Oil leaks are not an issue with e-methanol, Fredriksson said. He said methanol spills in the ocean dissolve within 24 to 48 hours with virtually no negative environmental impacts. Double tanks could be a thing of the past since there is no need for the extra precaution with biodegradable e-methanol.
“You need twice as much of it because methanol is half the energy content as a diesel bunker fuel, but you have a lot more flexibility in where you can store that methanol and compare that to fuels like hydrogen, ammonia or LNG where you’ve really got more central, larger and cryogenic fuel storage. They’ll have a lot more impact on cargo space availability than methanol,” Dolan said.
In addition to ocean protection, e-methanol can benefit human health. Compared to conventional marine fuels, Fredriksson said on average, e-methanol reduces nitrogen oxides by 60% to 70%, sulfur oxide by 95%, and particulate matter by 95%. He explained how the lack of double carbon bonding in the engine means there is nothing to make soot, so the engines operate much cleaner.
“It’s good for the immediate environment nearby it, and it’s good for the climate and the atmosphere. That’s why we think methanol is such a good fuel,” Fredriksson said. He noted that a Göteborg-based company, Marinvest, uses methanol to fuel four of its ships, is happy with the switch and will not be going back.
Marinvest received its first delivery of methanol dual-fuel vessels in 2016 after ordering them in 2013, said CEO Patrik Mossberg. Mossberg told FreightWaves that methanol is a “future-proof” marine fuel because it’s stable and liquid at ambient temperature, is available at more than 100 ports today, can be stored, transported and distributed easily, and is cleaner than other marine fuels in terms of soot, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxide and particulate matter.
Invisible fire and other hurdles
Methanol burns with almost invisible flames at a low flashpoint of 150 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, Fredriksson said. However, if there is a fire, it can actually be easier to handle since it doesn’t burn as hot and can be put out by water, which is not the case for typical marine fuels. The light blue flames also become more visible once you spray them.
“This is all regulated,” Fredriksson said, explaining how double-walled pipes help prevent leaks in the fuel system. It is also common to put a coloring agent in the methanol or install heat sensors to detect potential issues.
“Methanol also burns with one-eighth the heat of gasoline and is harder to ignite, so methanol is actually a safer fuel than gasoline,” Dolan said.
Mossberg said Marinvest’s methanol-powered ships have never had issues with methanol gas leaks or flames. He noted that if sensors were alerted to a methanol leak, the methanol supply would immediately stop, and the methanol system would be “purged and cleaned” before restarting operations.
In addition to fire precautions, methanol requires careful cleaning. If leftover drops of methanol are left in the engine, Fredriksson said it could be corrosive. However, he noted that engines using methanol are generally cleaner and need less maintenance.
Wanted: Engine manufacturers and economies of scale
“I think renewable methanol in theory could decarbonize the entire thing [shipping industry],” but the demand for shipping fuel is large and continues to rise, Fredriksson said.
The speed of e-methanol adoption and production capacity depends on several factors, such as investments in and economies of scale for electrolyzers, costs and technological advances for capturing carbon dioxide, and costs of renewable energy. Fredriksson noted it’s also important to get engine manufacturers on board with methanol fuel.
“This is a great opportunity for them to continue using conventional engines and getting another fuel to go in their engines. They need to tweak to make it work, but it’s a very small tweak for them compared to shifting to fuel cells or shifting to batteries or something else,” Fredriksson said.
Costs and potential customers
Renewable methanol is currently “quite a bit more expensive” than conventional marine fuel, Fredriksson said, not specifying by how much.
The current cost of producing e-methanol is estimated at $800 to $1,600 per ton, assuming the carbon dioxide used is captured from industrial sources at $10 to $50 per ton and not directly from the air, according to a Methanol Institute and Irena report.
For comparison, producing methanol from fossil fuel sources costs about $100 to $250 per ton, the report said.
It comes down to which companies want to lead the industry toward a more sustainable future and which are willing to pay a premium or pass on part of the extra costs to customers for a greener service, Fredriksson said.
Because their business relies on natural beauty and tourism, cruise ships in particular have expressed interest in Liquid Wind’s e-methanol. Coastal carriers have shown interest as well, especially in cities with green fuel requirements for ports, Fredriksson said. He mentioned that the pulp and paper mill industries that “make a big noise” about being sustainable might want to power their bulk carriers with renewable methanol or another sustainable fuel.
While e-methanol has potential to reduce shipping-related emissions, these cost, technology, and supply hurdles will need to be addressed before it is economically viable and widely available.
Fredriksson’s solution? Work together, and embrace change.
“Welcome the new fuel, and don’t try to fight it by just holding on to the old stuff,” he urges the industry as a whole. “We need to save the planet, and I think we need to be in this thing together.”