Navigation turns to hydrogen to get rid of bunker fuel


The Compagnie Belge Maritime du Congo launched its first steamship, the SS Leopold, on its maiden voyage from Antwerp to the Congo in 1895. Today, CMB, the successor of the colonial-era group, carries commuters between the Belgian town and the neighboring town of Kruibeke on a hydrogen-powered ferry.

“This is the fourth energy revolution in shipping – from rowing to our sails, steam engine and diesel engine and we need to change it once again,” said Alex Saverys, Director general of CMB and descendant of one of the oldest maritime families in Belgium.

Shipping produces around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, without action, its contribution is likely to increase for decades as global trade expands. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates the global industry, wants to at least halve its impact by 2050.

Many industry figures are pinning their hopes on blue or green hydrogen – produced using natural gas with carbon capture or renewable electricity and whose only by-product when burned is water – to help avoid polluting bunker fuel.

“There is no doubt that hydrogen will be the energy carrier of maritime transport in 2050,” said Lasse Kristoffersen, managing director of the Norwegian company Torvald Klaveness. “The question is, how do you produce it and what form do you use it as a medium?”

But other leaders exploiting the huge carcasses that ply the planet carrying everything from raw materials to consumer goods are skeptical that hydrogen can play more than a small role in the energy transition.

While pilots such as CMB’s prove that fuel is viable on a small scale on fixed routes with refueling infrastructure in place, 85% of the sector’s emissions come from bulk carriers, tankers and container ships, according to the report. Royal Dutch Shell analysis. Nothing can power them as efficiently and cheaply as fossil fuels.

“It will not be an easy sector to decarbonize,” said Bud Darr, executive vice president of Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s second largest container shipping group. “The need for autonomy in maritime transport forces us to transport a large quantity of fuel. We need a large-scale range of alternative fuels and we urgently need them. We keep an open mind and explore all possible solutions. “

Hydrogen has a low energy density compared to heavy fuel oil. Its storage in its liquid form below -253 ° C requires heavy cryogenic tanks which take up valuable space, which makes it impractical for large freighters.

“With the current state of technology, we cannot use hydrogen to power our ships,” said Morten Bo Christiansen, head of decarbonization at AP Moller-Maersk, MSC’s biggest rival.

However, the industry has become increasingly optimistic about using ammonia, a compound of hydrogen and nitrogen, to fuel the workhorses of global commerce without spitting out greenhouse gases.

Although smelly and poisonous, ammonia is easy to liquefy, is already transported around the world on a large scale, and has nearly twice the energy density of liquid hydrogen.

“The cleanest and most realistic transport fuels of the future are hydrogen-based fuels, including green ammonia,” said Rasmus Bach Nielsen, global head of fuels decarbonization at the trader in Trafigura raw materials.

Engine makers believe the technology is within reach. Finland’s Wärtsilä said he would be ready to scale up ammonia-ready engines by the end of next year, while German man Man Energy Solutions planned to deliver an oil tanker to the ammonia in 2024. Both said that until the supply infrastructure is in place, new engines should also be compatible with bunker fuel.

Almost all of the 176 million tonnes of ammonia produced per year, mainly for fertilizers, currently uses “gray” hydrogen extracted from natural gas in an energy-intensive process that emits CO2.

Greener fuels are expected to power international shipping, but it will be decades away

Producing carbon-free ammonia on a large scale is a difficult task. Around 150 million tonnes would be needed to meet 30% of marine transportation fuel demand by 2050, according to a report by the Haldor Topsoe catalysis company. This would require 1,500 terawatt hours of renewable energy, roughly the equivalent of all of the world’s wind production last year.

The pockets of the shipping industry are now clamoring for a global carbon tax to accelerate the production and adoption of next-generation fuels.

“The technology is there and ready,” Bach Nielsen said. “Now we need regulation.”

However, with the 174 IMO member states, including oil producers and commodity exporters, reaching an agreement on a carbon price is no easy task. The EU is expected to make proposals in June to include maritime transport in its emissions trading system, but maritime leaders say a global carbon tax should be several times higher than prices current EU records above € 47 per tonne to make hydrogen-based fuels competitive. .

Any transition to hydrogen or hydrogen-based fuels is likely to be a lengthy process given the industry’s caution in switching to a cleaner fossil fuel. Even now, only 11% of new ships on order will be powered primarily by liquefied natural gas, according to consulting firm Drewry.

The medium-term decarbonization efforts of the largest shipping companies are mainly focused on low-carbon synthetic fuels and biofuels.

Maersk, which plans to launch its first carbon-neutral ship in 2023, supports methanol – either biomethanol derived from waste such as wood or e-methanol produced from captured CO2 and green hydrogen. The French CMA CGM is investing in biomethane. Both are compatible with existing engines.

Percent share by type bar chart showing Most of the investments needed to decarbonise shipping will be focused on sustainable fuels

Critics say the biomass resources required for biomethanol are limited and that production can lead to environmental problems such as deforestation and water degradation. They also point out that while synthetic fuels absorb CO2 when produced, they release it when burned.

“Why the hell should we be releasing CO2 in fuels when we captured it in the first place?” Kristoffersen asked Torvald Klaveness.

For many, this leaves hydrogen in one form or another at the heart of any long-term vision to decarbonize shipping. Few, however, can predict with certainty how quickly this could happen.

“We expect the technical issues to be resolved in the next few years,” said Jan Dieleman, head of shipping at US grain trader Cargill. “The main challenge is the regulatory framework, because even the large-scale production of these fuels will always be more expensive than fossil fuels. If we want to decarbonize shipping, we will need regulations to drive the change. “

The colors of the hydrogen rainbow

© Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Green hydrogen Made using clean electricity from renewable energy technologies to electrolyze water (H2O), separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen. Currently very expensive.


Blue hydrogen Produced from natural gas but with carbon emissions captured and stored or reused. Negligible amounts in production due to a lack of capture projects.


Gray hydrogen It is the most common form of hydrogen production. It comes from natural gas by steam reforming methane but without capturing emissions.


Brown hydrogen The cheapest way to make hydrogen, but also the most harmful to the environment due to the use of thermal coal in the production process.


Hydrogen turquoise Uses a process called methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon. Not proven on a large scale. Concerns about methane leaks.



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