Alternative Fuels

With the critical Marine Environment Protection Committee 72 meeting coming up at IMO in April there’s a lot of talk about alternative fuels as a means of rapidly transitioning the global fleet to zero emission. By ‘alternative’ we aren’t talking about LNG which, it turns out, does look much like a transition fuel let alone a sensible choice for a long-life shipping asset. The well to wheel emissions for liquid natural gas are about the same, some studies say more, than fuel oils.

No, what we’re talking about as the current favourite bets are ammonia and hydrogen. Ammonia is widely used in the fertiliser industry and so it’s industrial manufacture and handling is understood and established. Hydrogen is still at an early stage in its development as potential transport fuel but it’s said to have promise.

What we’re looking for is an easy, drop-in replacement to fossil-based fuels. But silver bullets are hard to find.

Using either hydrogen or ammonia requires ships engines to be modified or replaced and both fuel types would need new bunkering infrastructure and storage facilities both on board and in ports. This requires the whole industry to agree that one or the other fuels is the best solution so that infrastructures can evolve in line with demand. Think Electric Vehicle charging points, chickens and eggs.

Another option being bandied about are biofuels produced from plant-based materials. There are a couple of big issues here too. On a finite planet there’s a finite amount of land. We can use that to live on, to grow food on or to grow fuel on – but we can’t do all of those things.

And then there’s waste. What we think of as ‘waste’ can also be a feedstock for energy production. Once we switch our mindset from waste to feedstock it becomes a valuable commodity. There may be a plentiful supply but the there’s also a high demand for the energy that can be harnessed from it. The value of what once thought of as ‘waste’ is increasing, once you couldn’t give it away and now there’s a price on it. In the end other sectors may make claim to the waste feedstock for fuel ahead of shipping, where other solutions may be better suited.

It’s complicated.

But with global pressure bearing down on the IMO tackling the upcoming sulphur regulations will be a walk in the park compared to the GHG emission rules needed to decarbonise shipping by 2050. The sooner we embrace this complexity and co-create workable solutions the more robust and resilient our industry will be.