The way vessels are fuelled is about to undergo dramatic change, but a range of different solutions will be needed. Ammonia, LPG, bio or green ethanol, synthetic methane and more – ship owners will have to think hard about the right choices
Lower carbon fuels will transform shipping

Fuels of the future

The way vessels are fuelled is about to undergo dramatic change, but a range of different solutions will be needed. Ammonia, LPG, bio or green ethanol, synthetic methane and more – ship owners will have to think hard about the right choices

  • Gunvor Hatling Midtbø
    Vice President, Communications

Global shipping is undergoing a “massive transformation” of the kind not witnessed since sails were replaced by engines as a new era of future fuels arrives.

And these low carbon alternatives will not only revolutionise the way the industry functions but help businesses invest in the best solutions for them with confidence thanks to the sustainable technology we are pioneering.  

The aim is to reduce greenhouse gases and so make the environment cleaner. “It is going to mean a massive transformation. And it is starting now,” says Oskar Levander, Kongsberg Maritime’s Senior Vice President Business Concepts.

The container market is currently at an all-time high and record amounts of freight are being moved around the planet. However, sustainability is becoming ever more important and regulations on carbon emissions are becoming tighter.

“This creates a challenge about what kind of vessels the sector should invest in,” Oskar adds. “The question is what kind of vessel do you buy that is competitive in today’s market but still remains relevant and able to meet future demands.

 Oskar Levander, Kongsberg Maritime’s Senior Vice President Business Concepts

“Customers are now demanding low emissions in their transport. However, only a very small fraction of cargo owners are paying extra for these. The forthcoming transformation will be driven by regulation as the industry will not buy expensive fuels just for the sake of it.” Oskar Levander, Kongsberg Maritime’s Senior Vice President Business Concepts

What type of low carbon fuels, though, will we see in the future? There isn’t a simple answer to this: it depends on the vessel and the usage.

“For mainstream shipping such as container ships I think the main options will be green ammonia, synthetic methane or bio or green ethanol. Using battery power for these vessels will not be practical, though that solution could work for ferries.”

Other possibilities in some cases include using hydrogen or hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO). The latter has the advantage that it can be used in any diesel engine and may be particularly useful for smaller vessels.

“However, there is a limited supply of HVO and it may also be needed for cars, trucks and planes,” Oskar says. “That said, it may be appropriate for existing ships where you don’t want to retrofit new technology.”

Ammonia may not be suitable as a fuel on passenger vessels because of its toxicity, he says. “Cargo vessels can separate the people onboard from the fuel by distance, but passengers are all over the vessel. If there was a leak, it could be a problem.”

Despite these potential challenges, there is approval in principle for ammonia fuel vessels, Oskar adds, though the systems needed still remain to be fully developed and the fuel has yet to be made commercially available in the marketplace.

Work on real world use of ammonia fuels is active and ongoing. Kongsberg Maritime is a key partner backed by the Norwegian government, known as the Pilot-E scheme, to turn a fully functional and flexible zero emission bulk carrier concept into reality.

A new fleet of five vessels, operated by Viridis Bulk Carriers, will have their propulsive power provided by ammonia in a project known as FlexBulk - NH3 Power. Exhaust gases will be treated to eliminate any pollutants and by-products.

Sustainable solutions

With its capability when it comes to technologies, design, power management and safety systems, Kongsberg Maritime can help deliver the necessary sustainable solutions for the future, articulated further by its ongoing #SeaChange campaign.

“Our customers are asking about new fuel solutions,” Oskar says. “We consult and find the right approach for them. We give them an objective view and evaluate on a ship-by-ship basis. We look at the pros and cons with different fuels and examine costs versus emissions savings.”

When it comes to big cargo vessels, Oskar adds, he recommends a multi-fuel approach. “You shouldn’t lock yourself into a single fuel when you have other options. By taking this approach you are future proofing the vessel and that future proofing takes account of where the market is going.

“If the ship owner does this then they are not going to have a stranded asset as time passes. We are already seeing this enlightened approach – they are specifying multifuel in their new project specifications and contracts. It’s definitely a trend.”

The dual fuel choice of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and diesel has been around for a long time and is now in the mainstream. “But we are now seeing customers specifying ammonia or methanol readiness for their vessels as well.

Oskar says: “These can currently be prepared to different degrees. The initial conversion can be as big or small as ship owners require at this stage. Many believe that the logical and sensible way to proceed at present is to have a vessel that is competitive today but will still be able to comply and change according to future demands.”

Vessels using LNG today can switch to biogas or synthetic methane at any time without needing to be converted. These solutions reduce emissions, though they may drive costs up slightly. “Or you can run on diesel or HVO. So that’s five fuel options from the beginning, and it’s an efficient and cost effective solution.

“Some fuels are going to be more expensive, so you want to improve efficiency as much as possible. So we design the vessel to take account of this and that improves the business case. The future is exciting.”

Watch Oskar’s webinar about future proofing container feeder vessels here.

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