‘The research is there, but who will invest in zero-emissions ships?’

Politicians and governments invent ever stricter measures to reduce the use of climate-threatening fossil fuels. However, as SWZ|Maritime’s editor-in-chief Antoon Oosting argues in his latest opinion piece, what lacks is clear market-based incentives for investing in zero-emission ships.

In every issue of SWZ|Maritime, Oosting writes an opinion piece under the heading “Markets” about the maritime industry or a particular sector within it. In the February 2021 issue, he stresses that clean shipping and zero-emission ships require market demand as well as clear regulatory requirements.

The first ferries on batteries are sailing and there are some experiments with sailing on alternative fuels like ethanol, methanol, biofuels and ammonia or with wind-assisted propulsion. However, the big ships in the three main categories – tankers, bulkers and container carriers – that are ordered now will still use fossil fuels like HFO, MGO or LNG at best, like Hapag Lloyd’s latest investments.

It is at least hopeful that research in cleaner shipping, especially in Scandinavia, the UK, Japan and also the Netherlands has been well on its way for some time. Recently, the Dutch Ocean Technology Centre (DOTC) and the Platform voor Schone Scheepvaart (Clean Shipping Platform) both held a webinar to give an update on their findings. The DOTC is a cooperation of TNO and the Delft University of Technology (TUD). The Platform is a cooperation of the Royal Association of Netherlands Shipowners (KVNR), the ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, again TNO, shipbuilding organisation Netherlands Maritime Technology, Dutch maritime research institute MARIN and Stichting De Noordzee, the environmentalist group for the protection of the North Sea.

There’s no simple unambiguous solution that fits all types of ships and sailing patterns

One of the most obvious conclusions of these webinars is that the energy transition of shipping will probably lead to a huge diversification of propulsion systems and fuels. There’s no simple unambiguous solution that fits all types of ships and sailing patterns like it used to be with HFO and MGO and the diesel combustion engine. And although the diesel combustion engine will still be in use for quite some decades to come, other types of engines and propulsion systems have to be developed to be able to seriously reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

A major transition

According to TNO researcher and business developer maritime energy transition Jurrit Bergsma, we are on the eve of a major transition. ‘This is a major challenge as ships last 25 years or more, the wide variety of ships and the large number of stakeholders.’ To develop, design and validate more sustainable, preferably zero-emission ships represents a very clear technical challenge as it demands other energy carriers, other power systems, fuel cells, batteries, etc. And they have to be developed together now.

Bergsma emphasizes that everyone has a role and responsibility: energy suppliers must ensure that there are enough energy carriers, ports have to enable bunkering facilities, but there are also roles for governments, financing institutes, suppliers and shipyards. Especially energy suppliers are very important as they have to guarantee that sufficient sustainable energy is available.

Bergsma stresses that all stakeholders in the industry need to participate in the process of designing concepts for new ships that will have to be built as early as 2025. That will be difficult enough, much more difficult than for example in the automotive industry, where one successful model can be produced in thousands. In shipbuilding, it leads to at most a few hundred ships.

All stakeholders in the industry need to participate in the process of designing concepts for new ships that will have to be built as early as 2025

Therefore, Bergsma feels it is necessary to first develop a couple of experimental ships. Learning by doing has to ultimately lead to proven designs that can be used to renew the world fleet on a large scale with sustainable zero-emission ships. The designs for these kinds of ships also have to meet a business model that is able to attract the necessary investments.

No less than zero-emission

Sustainable ships in the vision of TNO/Bergsma have to be completely or nearly zero-emission. Only then will it be possible to reduce shipping’s greenhouse gas emissions to a level that contributes to reducing global warming. This goes beyond the agreement the IMO reached in April 2018 to reduce GHGs from shipping by at least fifty per cent compared to 2008. This implies that ships should be at least seventy per cent cleaner.

In 2008, shipping emitted around 1000 megatonnes of GHGs. Doing nothing, this would grow to 2500 megatonnes. According to the IMO scenario and the expected growth of shipping, total GHG emissions will remain at around these 1000 megatonnes. So, ships have to reduce their emissions by much more than those seventy per cent.

To reach this ambition, it is necessary to create market demand for clean shipping and zero-emission ships and clear regulatory requirements for these vessels. The problems that have to be solved are the uncertainty over the availability of sustainable zero-emission energy carriers, the availability of the sustainable technology to be able to build zero-emission ships and the lack of strategic clarity about the direction in which ships and shipping should be developed.

Wat is needed is synergy in the maritime sector between technology and business case

With the now agreed R&D agenda, the DOTC cooperation aims to reduce some of these uncertainties. ‘Wat is needed is synergy in the maritime sector between technology and business case,’ Bergsma says.

Concrete possibilities

In the meantime, research is in full swing as we can learn from the overview MARIN’s Christian Veldhuis gave in the DOTC webinar. In February 2019, a consortium of leading international maritime companies, supported by the Maritime Knowledge Centre, joined forces to investigate the feasibility of methanol as a sustainable marine fuel. As part of the project, the partners will look at concrete possibilities to adopt methanol as fuel on either newbuilds or conversions of the existing fleet.

TNO, TUD, NLDA (Netherlands Defence Academy) and MARIN invest in this theme and provide knowledge-building and research capacity for the project by studying operational profiles, ship and engine configurations, performances, various emissions as well as many other relevant topics.

By Hans de Wilde.

In October 2020, MARIN started its ZERO JIP (Joint Industry Project) in which some twenty Dutch and international maritime companies participate in an R&D project to build the “Engine room of the future”. The objective of this JIP is to design, build and test a prototype engine room to ensure reliable future operations in realistic conditions while meeting functional and emission requirements.

In doing so, answers must be formulated on questions like what will be the fuels of the next decade, how will energy have to be stored on board, distributed and managed, which power systems will impose itself and fulfil the ambitions, or which type of bunkering will be available in most ports. In the project, some eight types of ships will be looked at to see how they operate at this moment and how this will be with alternative fuels. This project runs until 2022.

NWO Proposal AmmoniaDrive

Just in December last year, TUD, the universities of Wageningen (WUR) and Groningen (RUG) and TNO launched a third project, the NWO Proposal AmmoniaDrive. The NWO is the Dutch organisation for scientific research that distributes subsidies. Ammonia (NH3) is one of the most promising hydrogen carriers and alternative fuels for long-distance vessels and other maritime applications.

When produced from renewable power, ammonia would decarbonise shipping

When produced from renewable power, ammonia would decarbonise shipping and help to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement. However, successful application of ammonia as a marine fuel is highly challenging due to its complex combustion properties, concerns about the effects on the marine environment and human safety and economic barriers.

AmmoniaDrive addresses these issues by adopting ammonia in an innovative Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) and internal combustion engine (ICE) combined power generation system on board of ships, or onshore for emergency power. The unique AmmoniaDrive power plant makes optimal use of the strengths of both energy converters (SOFC and ICE), utilises ammonia as both hydrogen and energy carrier and has a relatively small, and thus acceptable, impact on ship design. The result is a single-fuel, high-efficiency power plant that can be implemented on board with no pollutant emissions anywhere in the energy chain.

The technical research in the proposal addresses key hurdles for successful application in order to prove and demonstrate technical feasibility. Ammonia is a little bit heavier that methanol, but with this a ship can possibly sail carbon-free. In two months, the initiators expect a go or no go from the NWO.

Shipowners want the right fuels

All this research ultimately has to result in reasonable business models for shipowners and investors. For several years already, they plea for market-based measures (MBMs) and a fund by which frontrunners can be rewarded when they invest in sustainable ships. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) proposed a USD 2 per tonne levy on marine fuel purchases last year to create a fund for the research and development of zero-carbon marine fuels. The fund would be supervised by the IMO and managed by a new International Maritime Research and Development Board (IMRB).

ECSA, the organisation of the EU shipowners, is now calling upon the European Commission to address fuel suppliers by introducing sub-targets to make low- and zero-emission carbon fuels available for shipping. By imposing a levy on fossil fuels, the price gap with alternative zero-emission fuels could be bridged.

Also read: ‘Consumer will pay for Trump-like European shipping policy’

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.