Methanol Seen as a Viable Marine Fuel Alternative, Report Finds

In March 2015, the Stena Line ferry Stena Germanica become the first methanol-powered ship after a six-week conversion at a Poland shipyard.
In March 2015, the Stena Line ferry Stena Germanica became the first methanol-powered ship after a six-week conversion at a Poland shipyard.

With renewed pressure on the shipping industry to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, a new report has found that readily-available methanol has a “historic opportunity” to become a viable, green alternative as a marine fuel.

The report, authored by marine energy systems export Professor Karin Andersson of Sweden’s Chalmers University, was released Friday by research firm FCBI Energy and aimed to examine the viability of methanol as an alternative marine fuel to diesel and LNG.

Methanol is a low-emissions fuel that has sometimes been overlooked in policy and industry discussions despite having many attributes that make it an attractive marine fuel, according to FCBI Energy. 

The report found that in addition to being compliant with the strictest international emissions standards, methanol is abundantly available, 100% renewable and would require only minor modifications to existing bunkering infrastructure. Methanol is also biodegradable, so the effects of a spill on the environment are low. The report also notes that unlike LNG, methanol, since it is a liquid, does not require expensive cryogenic equipment new to cool natural gas into a liquid form.’

From a cost standpoint, the report said that while the cost advantage of using methanol has eroded in the lower oil price environment, but methanol prices do show regional variation and remain competitive in some key shipping regions, including China. In other areas, including North America for example, the report says that expansion in methanol manufacturing capacity in key markets such as the U.S., should put downward pressure on costs, making methanol even more cost-competitive. Also, since methanol engines are dual fuel, a temporary change to marine diesel is always possible at points in time when methanol is more expensive, the report notes. 

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The Methanol Institute’s CEO Gregory Dolan comments: “Traditionally one of the world’s most widely shipped chemical commodities, methanol now has an historic opportunity to move from ship’s cargo holds to their fuel bunkers. As this report documents, methanol’s use as a marine fuel provides shippers and port facilities with an affordable option for compliance with tightening emission requirements. Produced from a wide range of feedstocks – including a variety of renewable pathways – methanol provides an ideal pathway to sustainable shipping.”

Earlier this year, Sweden-based Stena Line converted a large Ro-Pax ship, Stena Germanica, to run on methanol as its main fuel, marking the first commercial ship in the world to make the conversion. The conversion took just six weeks at the Remontowa Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, and is expected to reduce emissions of sulphur (SOx) by about 99%, nitrogen (NOx) by 60%, and carbon dioxide (CO2) by 25% compared to tradition fuel.

Stena Line CEO Carl-Johan Hagman notes that: “the handling and installation of a liquid like methanol had clear advantages over gas or cryogenic fuels regarding fuel storage and bunkering… I believe this report can help raise awareness of this marine fuel and serve as an important source of facts to anyone looking for a greener shipping fuels.”

The report also examined potential market development strategies to advance the use of methanol as a marine fuel, a comprehensive list of all research and development projects with methanol as a marine fuel, and an index of companies involved in the marine methanol industry.

The report comes on the heels of the renewed pressure on the shipping industry to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions in the wake of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. The final text of the Agreement, seeking to limit global warming to a 1.5ºC rise, does not explicitly mention shipping, which critics have said risks the target and calls into question who is responsible for reining in emissions from the sector. The backlash has sparked the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency charged with regulating international shipping, to renew its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships.