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Methanol: the green all-rounder?

Practical, easy to store, potentially renewable

Burned in an engine, methanol would not eliminate CO2 emissions from shipping; but by adopting it, maritime could drag more than one industry into a zero-carbon paradigm

In the future fuels lineup, Methanol is something of a wildcard – there are ten vessels already using it. From an emissions standpoint, it has much to recommend it; against heavy fuel oil, it cuts down particulate matter and SOx by 99%, and NOx by 40%. CO2 emissions savings, however, are comparatively modest. A vessel could expect to cut CO2 by just 10% by switching to methanol; LNG offers 20%.

But “tank-to-propeller” emissions are only part of the picture. To see the real benefit of methanol, one must examine how it interacts with – and enables – other green industries. This is precisely what DFDS and the world’s biggest container line, Maersk, have done.

Renewable methanol

This year, Maersk announced that it would be adopting methanol as its primary route to decarbonization. This, the company argued, would allow it to far exceed IMO CO2 reduction targets, and much earlier than the 2050 mandate, as well. “Our ambition to have a carbon neutral fleet by 2050 was a moonshot when we announced in 2018. Today we see it as a challenging, yet achievable target to reach,” said Søren Skou, CEO, A.P. Moller – Maersk, in February.

As a gateway to this, Maersk will launch a 2,000TEU methanol-powered feeder vessel. Unlike other methanol-powered vessels, from the first day of operation, it will burn clean methanol, generated either using bio-methanol, generated from waste products, or e-methanol.

As part of the move, Maersk is participating in a consortium of companies – including ferry line DFDS, Copenhagen Airports, airline SAS, logistics company DSV Panalpina, and Orsted – concerned with constructing a new electrolyzer facility to bring about renewable methanol. The facility would generate clean hydrogen, which could either be used directly for transportation where applicable, or, through a secondary process, to generate e-methanol by combining it with captured CO2 from fossil-fired power.

This would not eliminate CO2 from the ship’s funnel; but the use of renewably-generated methanol would displace HFO, MGO, and LNG in such vessels. Recycling carbon in this way allows industry to get a second bite of the cherry, drastically cutting the ship’s contribution to total emissions.

What is more, the generation of hydrogen using renewable wind and solar energy has a load-levelling effect, allowing every watt of energy to be harnessed even at times of surplus generation. Overall, this greatly improves the financial viability of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and is likely to form a huge catalyst for growth in these sectors.

Another way of fashioning methanol from green sources is bio-methanol, which is refined from biomass such as crop waste, black liquor from paper production, or biogases from sewage. These materials are fermented to produce synthetic gas, which is processed to form methanol.

Circular economy

Either way, like hydrogen, methanol requires energy to create, and is more sensibly described as an energy medium – akin to a liquid battery – than a fuel. Indeed, energy can be extracted directly using a methanol fuel cell, albeit only at efficiencies of around 40%, today.

But unlike hydrogen, methanol is a liquid at room temperature, and storing in ideal conditions is relatively inexpensive. Unlike ammonia, methanol is no more toxic than diesel fuel, with unhealthy exposure limits measured in minutes, rather than seconds.

Methanol is already available at 88 of the world’s top 100 ports. “Methanol is also biodegradable – there is less risk to the environment,” said Proman Shipping managing director marketing and logistics Anita Gajadhar, in a recent interview with Riviera. “[It] has the same energy and chemical characteristics no matter how it is produced.”

Stena Germanica became the first vessel to use methanol, following a conversion in 2015. Subsequently in 2018, a series of methanol carriers owned by Waterfront Shipping were converted to use a portion of their cargo as fuel. This means that as well as carrying it, maritime has some experience bunkering it – more than can be said for the rival ammonia.

The route to clean methanol may be little more circuitous than, for example, bio-LNG; but, compared with other synthetic fuels, it is easier to store and use, and Maersk may indeed get to zero-emissions quicker using this practical, clean-burning fuel.