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Clean power: methanol

Is methanol the future of marine fuel?

As the maritime industry heads into the final run-up to the 2020 global sulfur cap, cleaner marine fuels could be the answer to lower emissions. In this second post of the “clean power” series, we discuss the viability of methanol as an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative.

During the combustion stage, conventional marine fuels such as heavy fuel oil emit huge levels of sulfur and nitrous oxides into the atmosphere, harming the environment. It is for this reason, that regulations such as the global sulfur limit are entering force to reduce harmful pollutants emitted by vessel exhausts. In preparation for these stricter regulations, the prevalence of low sulfur fuel oils (LSFO) is increasing. One of the world’s top five chemical commodities, methanol is ultra-low in sulfur emissions and is readily available—but is it a realistic option for maritime?

A cleaner, greener alternative

Methanol is a clean-burning fuel meaning that it produces much fewer environmentally damaging particulates than conventional fuels. While methanol is a naturally occurring chemical, it can be produced from a variety of renewable sources making it a sustainable option for the maritime industry. On an industrial scale, methanol is mainly produced using natural gas produced from substances such as biomass or black liquor from the paper industry. This gas is reformed using steam and distilled to create pure methanol. An exciting notion put forward by Nobel Prize winner George Olah is that methanol could even be produced from recycled carbon dioxide (CO2)—thus further reducing the impact of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

The substance is not only organic and water soluble, but it also has a sulfur content of under 0.1%—meaning that it is competitive with even ultra-low sulfur fuel oils. As such a low-emission fuel, vessels powered by methanol will comply with the stricter regulations entering force in the near future.

What advantages can methanol offer the maritime industry?

The available supply infrastructure for methanol is a great advantage, as it is a substance used in many household products and has long been used to fuel racing cars. Due to this, the maritime industry would benefit from facilities for handling, storage, and bunkering being already in place and methanol is present in hundreds of ports worldwide. These existing facilities will also provide ship operators with vital knowledge on how to handle methanol safely.

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.

Chris Chatterton, CEO of the Methanol Institute, cited in World Maritime News

New precautions and concerns

Safety is an important concern in view of the fact that methanol is highly toxic to humans. The Methanol Institute recommends that personnel working with methanol wear detection monitors that alert them to potentially harmful levels of methanol vapor. This will require ship operators to provide new equipment and training to their crews to ensure health and safety. Training will also be vital for crews to deal with leaks or spills that may lead to fires, especially as methanol has twice the auto-ignition temperature of diesel and its flames are barely visible.

An additional consideration for methanol as a fuel is that engines must be created using methanol compatible materials, as methanol is highly corrosive. A ship’s engine will require modifications in order to withstand the higher corrosive properties of methanol, including the need for increased lubrication to prevent excessive wear.

Readily available and ready to go

There are already cases of vessels running on methanol: Waterfront Shipping, for example, has seven ocean-going vessels in its fleet that are capable of running on methanol as a fuel. As methanol is a liquid at ambient temperatures, converting the ship’s engine to run on the chemical would not be costly or complicated in comparison to LNG or fuel cells. Cases such as these prove methanol to be a reliable, cost-effective, and high-performance fuel which the maritime industry can benefit from.

Methanol is already proving itself as a viable option for the maritime industry. While current cases of methanol-powered vessels are few, they provide a strong argument for the environmental friendliness and cost-efficiency the substance offers as a marine fuel. Giving off much lower levels of harmful pollutants, a switch to methanol can help shipping companies comply with stricter environmental regulations with little effort and cost.

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