Sailing towards a carbon-free future

Hydrogen has piqued shipping''s interest as an emissions-free fuel in the long term. Credit: Getty Images/FrankRamspott

LNG can boast SOx reductions by 98%, slash NOx by 86%, and cut particulate matter by 96%. However, shipping must look elsewhere for clean fuels if it is to meet IMO and Paris Agreement GHG targets

Truly green fuels already exist and these include biofuels, methanol, ammonia, hydrogen, and nuclear power. However, drawbacks include significantly higher investment costs, general availability, and the lack of bunker infrastructure.

In the case of LNG though, the cost of the newbuilds that sail on this fuel can be set against lower operational costs, and LNG bunkering is expanding rapidly. As of 3 February, figures from the Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel stated there are 172 LNG-fuelled ships in operation and 198 ships on order, with 77 ports offering bunkers. However, LNG will not help shipping reduce its CO2 emissions.

In January, a report from the International Council on Clean Transportation stated that LNG could worsen shipping’s climate impact. High-pressure injection dual-fuel engines using LNG emit 4% more lifecycle greenhouse gases (GHGs) than if they used marine gas oil (MGO). Meanwhile, the most popular LNG engines – low-pressure, dual-fuel, four-stroke, medium-speed – emit 70% more lifecycle GHGs.

In an IMO presentation, Belgium-based Seas at Risk representative John Maggs said, “LNG has substantial methane emissions throughout the supply chain. The future [marine fuel] might be hydrogen, it might be ammonia, it might be something else, but it’s not going to be LNG.” As a result of such reports, it is probable that shipping industry LNG financing will dry up. The European Investment Bank, for example, will stop financing such projects by the fourth quarter of 2021, and it is expected other financial institutions – especially signatories to the Poseidon Principles on climate-aligned ship financing – will follow suit.

However, LNG has its advocates. Peter Keller, chairman of lobby group SEA\LNG, said, “LNG is the only safe, mature, commercially viable marine fuel that offers superior local emissions performance, significant greenhouse gas reduction benefits today, and a pragmatic pathway to zero-emissions.”

Pressure mounts

Decarbonisation does not come cheap. A study by University Maritime Advisory Services and the Energy Transitions Commission reckons the maritime industry will need to spend USD40–60 billion annually over the next two decades just to cut GHG emissions in half by 2050. To fully decarbonise will cost a further USD400 billion over those 20 years. Of that total, only 13% relates to ships themselves, the rest will be on land-based infrastructure, in ports especially.

“Our analysis suggests we will see a disruptive, rapid change to align to a new zero-carbon system, with fossil fuel–aligned assets becoming obsolete or needing significant modification,” stated University College London’s Energy Institute lecturer Dr Tristan Smith.
That should be seen as, “a profitable investment opportunity, not a cost”, said the Environmental Defense Fund Europe. It is a view shared by the EU under its European Green Deal, which looks to stimulate research and development (R&D) into new technologies to decarbonise. “The Green Deal comes with important investment needs, which will turn into opportunities,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. “The plan to mobilise at least EUR1 trillion will show the direction and unleash a green investment wave,” she noted.

Green electricity from mega offshore wind farms will benefit hugely, as EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson explained, “We’ll have a strategy so that joint projects for big parks can be finalised.”

This is good news for more than 90 companies and agencies that are members of the Getting to Zero Coalition (GTZC), which is supported by governments and intergovernmental organisations. Some zero-emission fuels, such as hydrogen, need clean electricity for the production process if they are to be truly green.

“To make the transition to full decarbonisation possible, commercially viable zero emission vessels must start entering the global fleet by 2030 with numbers radically scaled up through the 2030s and 2040s. Falling costs of zero carbon energy technologies make sustainable alternative fuels production increasingly competitive,” GTZC stated.

Separately, eight of the most powerful global shipping organisations are also backing decarbonising R&D. BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping, World Shipping Council, Cruise Lines International Association, Interferry, Intercargo, Intertanko, and the International Parcel Tankers Association are proposing a 10-year collaborative USD5 billion R&D programme to help eliminate CO2 emissions. So what are the main zero-emissions fuel options?

IMO’s initial 2018 GHG strategy saw hydrogen, as well as ammonia, as a ‘promising’ option. When it burns, hydrogen only leaves water vapour behind. At that time, Dr Smith said, “The long-term future is a hydrogen-based fuel of some sort.” That view was echoed by DNV GL principal consultant Tore Longva and GloMEEP-Global Industry Alliance chair Alexandra Ebbinghaus.


Hydrogen is not only important in shipping: it is one of the few fuels that can burn hot enough to make steel and cement, two of the world’s most polluting industries. The first problem, however, is how you produce it.

Electrolysis creates hydrogen by splitting it out of water molecules. Much of today’s hydrogen is electrolysed using brown coal, a process that requires 160 tonnes of coal to produce three tonnes of compressed liquid hydrogen – with a significant 100 tonnes of CO2 as a by-product. Hence the term brown hydrogen as opposed to green hydrogen.

A lot of energy is also required to turn it into liquid, which is the only viable way of transporting it in significant quantities. At −253°C, hydrogen is one of the coldest cryogenic gases.

The major challenge currently remains the cost. Green hydrogen costs from USD2.50 to USD6.80 a kilogramme to make. That would need to fall to around USD0.60 to financially challenge LNG production.

However, research is revealing more options. Major offshore wind farm developer Ørsted believes the latest massive turbines could be key to cheaper green hydrogen production. “Turbines often spin when the grid can’t absorb more power,” the Danish company pointed out. “Hydrogen factories could take that power and costs could come down to be competitive with fossil fuel by 2030.”

By 2025, Ørsted plans to have electrolyser projects up and running, including a major 30 MW project in Germany. Norway’s largest shipping company, Wilhelmsen, announced in December 2019 that along with partners NorSea, Equinor, Viking Cruises, Norled, and Air Liquide, it is developing a maritime liquid hydrogen supply chain and has received USD3.7 million in government funding. The project will offer, “a large-scale supply of liquid hydrogen to commercial shipping within the first quarter of 2024 and include zero-emission transport ships plus storage/bunkering terminals at NorSea bases”.

In December 2019, Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries, at its Kobe yard, launched Suiso Frontier, the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier that will carry hydrogen at 1/800 of its gas-state volume. The vessel should be commissioned in the fourth quarter of 2020.
Kawasaki wants hydrogen to be made as common a fuel source as MGO or LNG, and along with Iwatani, Shell Japan, and Electric Power Development, formed the CO2-free Hydrogen Energy Supply-chain Technology Research Association (HySTRA) in 2016 to promote that.
At the Port of Ostend in Belgium, dredging giant DEME and infrastructure investment company PMV announced in late January that they are to build the HyPort green hydrogen plant.

The goal is to have it operational by 2025, taking advantage of those offshore wind farms.
“In the first phase, a demonstration project with an innovative electrolyser of around 50 MW is scheduled,” a DEME representative told DPC.

“By 2022, roll-out of a large-scale, shore-based power project will start, running on green hydrogen. The finish line will be crossed in 2025 with the completion of a commercial green hydrogen plant in the context of the planned new offshore wind concessions.”

Meanwhile, along the coast in Antwerp, DEME has teamed with Zeebrugge and Antwerp port authorities, Engie, Exmar, Fluxys, and WaterstofNet to conduct a joint study that will form the basis for several projects to produce, transport, and store hydrogen.


As DPC noted in the January 2020 issue (pages 28–31), Dutch dredging giants Boskalis and Van Oord are both using biofuel to slash CO2 and other emissions. Boskalis is working with Dutch supplier GoodFuels and Finnish engine manufacturer Wärtsilä. Van Oord is collaborating with Shell. Belgian dredging major Jan De Nul (JDN) is now also testing biofuel operationally.

The current biofuel generation is sulphur-free, contains no fossil fuels, consists of used cooking oil, and offers a carbon reduction of 90%. Additionally, it complies with current emission control area (ECA) regulations and is International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) certified, which means that the entire supply chain is certified by a third party.

Using biofuel – Jan De Nul at work in Nieuwpoort. Credit: Jan De Nul

JDN uses biofuel on maintenance dredging in marinas in Nieuwpoort, Belgium, largely carried out by cutter suction dredger Hendrik Geeraert and split hopper barges Magellano and Verrazzano. Its 9,000 m3 trailing suction hopper dredger (TSHD) Alexander von Humboldt is also biofuel capable, as is its new 6,000 m3 TSHD Sanderus.

Helping drive the move to green fuels in Belgium’s Marine and Coastal Services, administrator-general Nathalie Balcaen commented, “We pay special attention to ecological criteria when inviting tenders, already resulting in CO2 reduction thanks to dredging contractors’ initiatives.” Availability, international acceptance, and bunkering remain obstacles to widespread biofuel adoption, but GoodFuels, together with biomass technology group BTG, is planning a major investment that will see the world’s first refinery converting crude pyrolysis oil into marine biofuel.


In a sign that methanol is a serious contender, Shell announced in early 2019 that it would co-invest – along with Nouryon, Air Liquide, Enerkem, and Port of Rotterdam Authority – in construction of a EUR200 million (USD217 million) green methanol plant in the Botlek, Rotterdam, that should open in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Normally, methanol is made using natural gas and thus contributes to CO2. This plant will produce green methanol using low-grade plastic and adhering green waste. The aim is to annually convert 360,000 tonnes of waste into 220,000 tonnes of methanol.

Marinvest tanker Mari Jone runs on methanol using MAN liquid gas injection methanol engines. Credit: Marinvest

The move followed an announcement of the Green Maritime Methanol project in the Netherlands, which is backed by Boskalis, Van Oord, Royal IHC, Damen Shipyards, and the Royal Netherlands Navy, along with engine manufacturers Pon Power and Wärtsilä and other major marine equipment suppliers.

Methanol is already available from many ports globally, according to the Methanol Institute, and around 35 million tonnes is traded internationally. Its drawback is that it has about half the energy density of conventional marine fuels. However, generally, it is cheaper than MGO and the world’s biggest producer, Methanex, believes that methanol pricing is more stable than other fuels – the company posts its contract prices on its website.

It is already used by numerous ships and in December 2019, SAL Heavy Lift became the world’s first shipping company to use methanol/hydrogen technology. The move followed four years of development in conjunction with FUELSAVE GmbH, EcoTune Marine, DNV GL, MAN Energy, and others.

Ammonia and nuclear

A relatively new entrant, ammonia is rapidly gathering support. In December 2019, classification society Lloyd’s Register (LR) and ABS respectively backed ammonia-fuelled 23,000 teu and 2,700 teu container ships projects initiated by MAN Energy Solutions in conjunction with Chinese shipbuilders. LR also announced in January that it is working with MISC Berhad, Samsung Heavy Industries, and MAN Energy to develop an ammonia-fuelled tanker.

In the same month, the EU awarded EUR10 million via its Horizon 2020 R&D programme to the 14-company ShipFC consortium – co-ordinated by Norwegian cluster organisation NCE Maritime CleanTech – to install the world’s first ammonia-powered 2 MW fuel cell on board offshore vessel Viking Energy in late 2023.

The Green Ammonia Consortium pointed out the benefits of ammonia at its first symposium in January. It said that when generated by renewable energy, ammonia has no carbon footprint and emits almost no CO2, SOx, or particulate matter when burned in engines. And as ShipFC noted, it is an abundant energy source.

In October 2019, LR floated the idea that nuclear power could help meet IMO’s 2050 emissions target. A totally zero-emission solution, nuclear emits no SOx, NOx, CO2, or particulates, and it is millions of times more power dense than methanol, ammonia, hydrogen, or any alternative fuel.

LR drew attention to its safety credentials, pointing out that the US Navy first adopted it in 1955, and some 700 reactors have been operational at sea since. Currently, there are about 100. It is not limited to navies, with US cargo carrier and passenger liner Savannah running for a decade, and Russia has operated nuclear merchant/passenger ships for many years.
“Any requirements to use shoreside power would be negated by nuclear power,” an LR representative told DPC. “It would even be possible to supply power from the vessel to shoreside. Nuclear is also currently excluded from the Energy Efficiency Design Index, meaning that there are no constraints for ships using the technology.”

The ultimate goal is nuclear fusion, a preferred option over nuclear fission as it produces far less waste. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project is hoping to make nuclear fusion power a reality. Headquartered in France, ITER is funded by the EU, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US.

Although nuclear’s major headache is the sheer cost, including maintenance, LR believes it is still possible that nuclear’s advantages can overcome that and other barriers, such as public perception and acceptance, along with protection against catastrophic accidents or terrorist theft.“2050 is coming faster than you think,” the classification society concluded.