Alternative Alternatives
5th June 2013 03:30 GMT

As emissions control regulations continue to evolve and fuel costs rise, LNG has secured itself the much-coveted role of poster child for future alternative bunker fuels within the marine industry, with particular attention being paid to its natural compliance with regulations and potentially lower energy costs when compared with conventional marine fuels.

While the potential benefits LNG brings to the table as a future ship bunker fuel are not to be scoffed at, it needs to be said that we should not be placing all our eggs in one basket when there does exist more than just one alternative bunker fuel in the market that meets regulatory requirements and possesses a considerable degree of future viability. There may be such an alternative…

Methanol is a pure, simple alcohol that can be made from a variety of sources such as coal, natural gas and biomass. It is generally produced from fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil or coal. Methanol can also be produced from renewable feedstock, thus giving it great potential for much higher production in the future.

With the imminent tightening of emissions regulations coming up, methanol is also envisaged to be cost competitive in the long run when compared against regular marine fuels due to relatively lower production costs.

Methanol is sulphur-free, automatically rendering it compliant across all ECAs, with the added bonus of a considerable reduction in NOx and particulate matter emissions. However, unlike LNG, methanol is a non-cryogenic liquid, which reduces risks associated with volume expansion into gas on board a vessel. The lack of cryogenic storage requirements for methanol also translates into a simpler and more straightforward use of methanol as a fuel compared to LNG.

Despite its merits, there are drawbacks in using methanol in the marine industry as an alternative fuel that have yet to be thoroughly explored. Unlike HFO and MGO, methanol is a toxic, low flash point liquid that warrants safety considerations – as such, training will be required in order to ensure the safe handling, transfer and storage of methanol on board ships. Inert gas systems for fuel tanks will also be required.

Due to its low energy density, a ship would require around twice the volume of methanol that it would normally utilize for MGO in order to cover the same distance. This also means more space on a ship will have to be allocated for the storage of fuel. It should be noted, however, that a ship built to run on LNG bunkers would also face a similar issue in this respect.

Another main consideration against methanol would be that there currently is insufficient supply of methanol to fuel potential widespread demand in the marine sector. While it is not impossible to increase production of methanol in the future, feedstock availability and allotment could prove to be another can of worms that will need to be sufficiently addressed before further production of methanol in the quantities required for marine can take off. Perhaps in the medium term methanol is most likely something that can be considered by short sea shipping operators on liner routes.

Though still in its infancy, methanol is at least as promising and viable as LNG is as an alternative bunker fuel – methanol bunkering is potentially cheaper to manage with minimal changes to existing infrastructure without the cryogenic, financial and energy costs of LNG, while still possessing the same compliance-readiness. Methanol may still be far from being that perfect, elusive “drop-in” solution that ship owners and operators would dream of having for the future, but it is essential that we not let ourselves get caught up in a tidal wave of enthusiasm for LNG only to blind ourselves to any other potentially viable solutions out there.

Douglas Raitt,
5th June 2013 03:30 GMT

Comments on this Blog
Heinz Otto
6th June 2013
Hi Douglas Raitt,
alternative alternatives to methanol and LNG to overcome long distances, is Of course the force of the wind. The maritime industry is well advised to develop systems and modern sailing ships with only minor machinery.
LNG is also a scarcity kind of fuel and it is crazy, to produce methanol also for ships, rather than to leave the people their food is.
Regards, H. Otto,

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