No silver bullet for the future fuel conundrum

This article is from Stolten – June 2022

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Shipping is seen as a major producer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, in reality, the industry contributes only about 2-4% of emissions globally. Shipping is firmly in the spotlight as demand increases for more sustainable fuel sources, and the race is on to find the most viable 'future fuel' as ever more challenging regulations, targets and restrictions come into force.

But our experts at Stolt Tankers say, there is no silver bullet to this incredibly complex issue and, instead, what's needed is an open mind, a realistic approach and awareness that there is no one, truly green alternative but rather a number of possibilities, each with its own challenges and benefits.

Take biofuels, for example: widely held to be the best green solution not least because engines currently running on traditional fuels can also operate on these seemingly green alternatives. However, it’s estimated that at least 50% of the world’s arable land would be needed just to produce enough biofuel to satisfy the demand from international shipping and aviation.

“Most future fuels require a completely new technology, with the exception of biofuels, which are available now and we are testing them in several trials, including a partnership with GoodFuels, says Maren Schroeder (pictured), Managing Director of Stolt Tankers. “However, biofuels will only help us in the transition, they are not the final solution.”

She believes the future fuels conundrum in shipping is that we all know it must happen, but at this point every choice comes with a lot of uncertainties, and nobody wants to be first to commit.

“The shipping industry is quite conservative; we are talking about big investments, and most companies cannot afford to be the first to try new technology and fail. That is why, as an industry, we need to be in this together. Similar to the approach we have taken on safety, we should not see sustainability as a competitive advantage, but collaborate across the industry.”

The move to alternative fuels will require huge, capital-intensive projects, not least for newbuildings, retrofitting or re-engineering ships. This is particularly challenging for the chemical tanker sector, which has struggled to see acceptable returns from its investments for several years now and, although things are certainly looking up, the market is unlikely to match the bumper profits the container industry has seen in recent years.

“We also really need support from our customers,” says Schroeder, “and in discussions with them, we see that some are more serious about sustainability than others. While some are open to joint projects, we don’t see any real commitment yet. But with more regulations coming, that conversation will need to shift as of next year.”

Picking a "winner"

Another challenge is that predicting tomorrow’s marine fuels is something of a multi-way bet, especially as views are shifting on liquefied natural gas (LNG), arguably the current frontrunner, as a transition fuel.

Schroeder sums it up: “Last year I would have put my money on ammonia. A month ago, it was methanol, which would be the better choice for conversion and the issue with methane slip is being addressed. But, at present, I am back to ammonia, provided there is access to green (or at least blue) ammonia.

“Hydrogen – including fuel cell (battery) propulsion for smaller ships – is also something we are keeping an eye on. In terms of what we know, it is a longer-term solution, and we are involved in several projects in this area. Ultimately, I see a mix of fuels being adopted across the industry, although I do think the next two years will be decisive.

“Unfortunately, the current regulations only focus on tank-to-wake emissions; the emissions that come out of the funnel. What we need to focus on is well-to-wake, which includes the emissions generated during fuel production. It does not make sense to reduce our tank-to-wake emissions by 10% if we add another 40% on the fuel production cycle. This does not help the planet and we as an industry have to adopt a more holistic approach.

“In the end, future fuels will be identified based on balancing the efficiency you get out of the fuel, its availability, cost, and the technical feasibility of retrofitting or putting it onboard ships.

“There are also, of course, safety considerations – the potential toxicity of ammonia, the high pressures required for storing hydrogen, the fact that methanol burns with an invisible flame, which poses a risk in terms of fire detection and extinguishing. Each of these fuels has its own challenges. A lot will come down to regulatory issues and bodies like classification societies and flag states will have to come up with the rules, regulations and procedures, while we will deliver the training to make sure it is safe.”

Source: ABS, Setting the course to low carbon shipping, view of the value chain, 2021.
1. WTW currently reflects poorly on alternative fuels, but the opportunity for full decarbonisation exists.

Stolt Tankers shares knowledge and experience on sustainable shipping

To follow industry developments as closely and effectively as possible, Stolt Tankers joined the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping in April 2021.

The Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping was created as an independent, non-profit research and development centre with the purpose of achieving decarbonisation in shipping.

Giorgio Guadagna, Project Manager – Stolt Tankers Newbuilding and Technical, is currently seconded to the centre and the plan is for Stolt-Nielsen to provide more experts in the future. “We decided to second Giorgio so that we will be able to make informed decisions when it comes to newbuildings or retrofitting to accommodate alternative fuels,” Schroeder explains.

“The centre is an amazing one-of-a-kind experiment,” says Guadagna, pictured speaking at the official opening of the centre in May (photo: Jeppe Bøje Nielsen). “There are a lot of collaboration and cooperation projects emerging throughout the industry, but I don’t think any others have a physical space where partners and employees come together to work on these initiatives.”

He splits his time between the centre in Copenhagen and Stolt Tankers’ Rotterdam office where, in addition to his day job, he leads the Stolt2050 working group set up to investigate potential decarbonisation technologies, including those around future fuels.

“Several of the centre’s projects fit very well with Stolt Tankers’ knowledge and experience, and with where we want to go. I try to involve more and more colleagues, from the Rotterdam office and others, in the projects I am working on – and, thanks to our post-Covid world, I can join meetings with colleagues at Stolt Tankers or the centre, regardless of where I am.”

Guadagna is currently working on projects focused on the reduction and treatment of emissions from current conventional fuels. This ties in neatly with the recent memorandum of understanding between Stolt Tankers, the Port of Rotterdam Authority and Vopak for a six-month feasibility study in which chemical tankers will switch off their diesel generators and plug into onshore power at Vopak’s Botlek Terminal.

Guadagna explains that projects looking at new fuels and associated technologies will follow. “Researching, preparing for and implementing alternative fuels is such a huge and complex task, so there are projects at the centre focusing on the short to medium term, and others looking further down the line.”

I don’t believe there will be one fuel that will rule them all. I think there will be location-specific, region-specific and even segment-specific solutions." Giorgio Guadagna, Stolt Tankers Newbuilding and Technical

Stolt Tankers is the only chemical tanker owner member of the centre and there is huge value in the variety of expertise and insights within the group. “It is amazing to sit next to people who know so much about areas different to mine, including container ships, conventional tankers and bulk carriers,” he says.

“As to our contribution, future fuels are likely to involve hard-to-handle chemicals, and that is what Stolt Tankers does for a living. It is important for us to do our part, and we must be transparent and open about the benefits and the downsides that each potential solution will have.

“I don’t believe there will be one fuel that will rule them all. I think there will be location-specific, region-specific and even segment-specific solutions.”

For example, hydrogen could be a solution for short sea because these ships can bunker more frequently, but it’s less attractive for deep sea routes because it would have to be stored in large quantities onboard, taking up a great deal of space and posing additional safety risks.

For deep sea, ammonia will likely be the better solution because it is easier to store and handle. Short to medium-term, biofuels, LNG and methanol will likely be the best bridging solutions until the future technologies are in place.

“But,” warns Guadagna, “we need to keep our minds open. We don’t have the luxury of disregarding any potential solutions at this point, given the complexities and costs of the future-fuel challenge.”

This article is from

Stolten – June 2022

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