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Maersk identifies alcohol, biogas and ammonia as pathways to decarbonisation

In its bid to lead shipping towards decarbonisation, Maersk Line has identified three fuels to focus on, namely alcohol, biogas and ammonia.

Maersk has been working with UK class society Lloyd’s Register on a future fuel types study and has come to the conclusion that the market will not drive the transition to zero emissions and policy interventions as well as a fundamental change to the incentives scheme for shipping are required.

According to the project partners, the greatest challenge to decarbonise shipping is on land and within the energy sector. Zero emission vessels are technologically possible in the next two years, the new study has found. However, the challenge is dwarfed by the challenges of getting the right fuel ready and the necessary supporting infrastructure on land.

“Shipowners must be confident around their future investments and they require confidence around their fuel supply chain, both availability in the quantities required and the land-based infrastructure in place,” said Katharine Palmer, LR’s global head of sustainability.

“Decarbonising shipping requires a total shift in propulsion technologies and by 2030 we need to see the first commercially viable carbon neutral vessels in service – that’s only 11 years from now. This is a game changer that requires close collaboration and joint action from researchers, regulators, technology developers, investors, customers and energy providers,” said Søren Toft, Maersk’s chief operating officer.

“Getting such a wide range of actors to work in the same direction is a necessary task, fundamental for the world, the next generations and also for the shipping sector if it is to stay relevant as the servant of global trade in a decarbonised economy.

The more industry consensus we can get towards the pathway to follow the better to accelerate the efforts to innovate, scale and initiated the transition to a sustainable shipping by 2030,” Toft added.

Maersk will now focus on alcohol, biogas and ammonia and will try to engage other industry stakeholders to follow suit. Other configurations such as batteries or fuel cells are much further behind in terms of development, Maersk believes, and are not very likely to be part of the first generation of net zero configurations for deep sea shipping.

“However, it is too early to rule anything out completely. In general terms we will spend 80% of our focus on the working hypothesis and keep 20% looking at other options. We believe it is too early to zoom in on just one configuration,” Maersk stated in a release.

The three key pathways all have both pros and cons relative to each other that need further exploration.

The alcohol pathway is promising because it is liquid at normal temperature and there are existing markets, known execution and infrastructure which can be extended. It is also not a highly toxic product. On the con side is that there is not a clear linear transition from current technology and it is a fully open question whether there is enough supply of sustainable biomaterial.

The bio-gas pathway is promising because it presents a clear and smooth transition possibility from current technology and ship design (LNG and gas turbines). It allows for investing in known ships and engine technologies today which immediately cut emissions by up to 15% and then transit into biogas in the long run potentially via LNG with carbon capture storage (CCS) in the intermediate Nevertheless, this pathway comes with a challenge around methane slip in the entire supply system. There are also questions around sufficient supply of sustainable biomaterial and the technology challenges of producing synthetic gas as an intermediate step.

Finally, the ammonia pathway is promising because it is truly carbon free and can be produced with pure renewable electricity.

As such it ties into an infinite resource and sun to energy conversion rate of this system is higher than biomaterial-based systems. It is already produced in high volumes for other sectors which could be scaled given an indication from shipping. The major challenges relate to the lack of any clear transition from current technology, but as a working hypothesis seems possible as well as the fact that ammonia is highly toxic and even small accidents have the potential to cause fatalities to crew and animals and seriously damage vast amounts of nature, so safety is a key challenge to overcome.

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Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.

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