The environment: new fuels that could transform the maritime industry


According to data from the 2022 IPCC report, “ maritime transport accounts for 16% of emissions from freight transport and 70% of transported tonne-kilometres (i.e. the movement of one tonne of goods per kilometer) » this article from Greenly reminds us. As with aviation, this sector is often singled out for its very heavy ecological impact.

Most container ships ply our oceans heavy fuel oil (HFO) operation, a residue from the distillation of petroleum that is much cheaper than lighter fuels such as marine diesel or liquefied natural gas (LNG). A fuel that Morten Bo Christiansen (a key player in the fight against carbon emissions in the shipping industry and senior vice president of AP Moller-Maersk) describes as “ the bottom of the barrel “.

New rules introduced The International Maritime Organization aims to reduce sulfur and carbon emissions, leading industry players explore the viability of alternative fuels.

Methanol, a promising alternative

Take the example of the Laura Maersk (see video below), a $160 million sea giant set to sail the Baltic Sea in 2023. This ship differs from its predecessors in one peculiarity: runs exclusively on methanolan organic component that is also the simplest of the alcohols.

Unlike traditional fossil fuels, methanol offers significant environmental benefits when produced sustainably. Indeed, its production can be done by capturing gas from landfills or processes powered by renewable energy sources. This new approach makes it possible to significantly reduce polluting emissions.

It’s not perfect, but it remains entirely possible as a replacement for HFO. The enthusiasm for methanol in marine transport is quite palpable: more than 200 ships compatible with this alternative fuel are currently on order worldwide.

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Ammonia: clean but tricky to use

Ammonia presents itself as an alternative fuel with also potential. It is one of the most synthesized substances in the world and is used in many fields: agriculture, chemical industry, refrigeration, water treatment and also as an energy carrier. Its big advantage: many ports around the world already have ammonia supply structures.

However, its acceptance in sea freight can be a bit complicated, especially because of its toxicity and the difficulties associated with its combustion. It actually requires very high temperatures (around 650°C compared to around 60°C for HFO). However, Lars Tingbjerg Danielsen of MAN Energy Solutions emphasizes that a lot of effort is being made to overcome these obstacles.

One of the main current areas of improvement is development of more efficient and reliable engines allowing the combustion of ammonia at high temperatures. It requires very slow engines to burn properly or it can escape. The risk of contamination is then quite considerable. The aim is to stabilize this process in slow two-stroke engines of large ships.

To do this, Danielsen’s company studies the ignition of ammonia in engine blocks using high-speed cameras. This allows engineers to understand and optimize ignition and combustion processes maximize their safety.

Hydrogen: a candidate hampered by technical and economic problems

Hydrogen on paper appears to be an ideal alternative fuel. Its combustion only releases water vapor (which still remains a greenhouse gas) and from an ecological point of view it seems to be flawless.

In fact, its use in maritime transport means encountering major obstacles, both technical and economic. Christiansen points out that although hydrogen can be produced in a renewable way (green hydrogen), its physical properties greatly complicate its use. The problem with hydrogen is that it evaporates at a very low temperature (-235°C).

To liquefy it and keep it stable, a huge amount of energy is needed. Although many companies are currently working on alternatives to hydrogen storage (for example, in the form of a solid stick or powder), a perfectly suitable solution does not yet exist.

Furthermore, the hydrogen molecule is one of the smallest molecules in existence. That means it can escape very easily the slightest crack, which presents significant efficiency and safety issues. Despite Maersk’s efforts to explore its full potential, hydrogen has proven to be more expensive than methanol and ammonia. So these last ones are currently the most promising candidates.

The situation is urgent for the maritime industry: it must reduce its carbon emissions by at least 30% by 2028 respect the commitments made under the Paris climate agreement. Climate and shipping specialist Simon Bullock insists on the urgency of the situation: the slightest delay would mean “ almost impossible » for shipping companies to achieve their decarbonisation targets. An observation he shared in this publication. The clock is ticking and the adoption of alternatives by shipowners is proving essential.

  • Methanol is a promising fuel for the marine industry if it is produced sustainably.
  • Ammonia too, but its adoption still requires modifications in the mechanics of container ship engines.
  • Hydrogen, the last candidate, is currently the one with the least potential, although specialists are interested in it.

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