Fuels Of The Future – Methanol as a Maritime Fuel

Fuels Of The Future – Methanol as a Maritime Fuel

  • Author: Ian Gansler and Grace Ochs

As the transport industry considers how to decarbonize realistically and pragmatically, AAPA is looking at the possibilities, policies, and infrastructure needed for alternative fuels. It is worth noting the business and operations of seaports and maritime partners are always AAPA’s paramount priority. Keep this in mind as you enjoy the fourth installment in AAPA’s Fuels of the Future series, a five-part project, featuring methanol as an alternative fuel.

In the drive to decarbonize the maritime shipping industry, methanol has emerged as a highly studied option for marine carriers to transition to. Methanol significantly reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. Methanol is most commonly produced from natural gas, but it can also be produced from renewable sources such as biomass or electrolysis powered by renewable electricity. Additionally, supporting methanol production with carbon capture utilization technology can significantly reduce or eliminate emissions from maritime vessels running on this fuel. When compared to other emerging alternative fuels, methanol is a safer and more reliable option as safe shipping and handling management practices have been implemented for many years. Compared to liquified natural gas (LNG), methanol has a lower volumetric density, necessitating larger containment tanks; however, onboard containment may be less challenging due to relatively lower safety concerns associated with methanol. 

Regarding environmental safety, methanol is a clear, odorless, and biodegradable fuel, making the effects of a spill less harmful than that of oil. Methanol dissolves quickly into water and is readily consumed by bacteria microbes, thus entering and supporting the food chain. However, methanol is toxic and poisonous to the central nervous system which may cause blindness, coma, and death if ingested in large quantities and has an increased risk of inhalation of vapor. From an environmental standpoint, methanol poses limited risks to marine ecosystems, and risks associated with human handling of methanol onboard vessels can be significantly reduced by safe handling and training procedures.   

In July 2021, Maersk announced a contract to build a methanol-fueled feeder container vessel set to be completed by 2023. The vessel, to be built with Hyundai Mipo Dockyards will have dual engine technology enabling it to sail on either methanol or traditional very low Sulfur fuel. Maersk notes their excitement to gain “valuable experience in operating the container vessels of the future” to support their customers in their decarbonization efforts while offering a carbon neutral product (Maersk 2021). Maersk has also announced a contract to build a fleet of eight container vessels to be powered by carbon neutral methanol (Maersk 2021). The vessels will be operational by 2024, and Maersk has an option to purchase an additional four vessels in 2025. 

Methanol’s ability to power engines that can also run on traditional diesel fuel could position the fuel to be the energy of choice for the world’s marine vessel owners and operators. In addition to building vessels that run on zero-emission fuels, finding producers for sufficient quantities of fuel will be a major engineering and economic challenge. Utilizing methanol could allow carriers to phase in zero-emission fuels while still having diesel available as a back up until complete supply chains are established.