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Methanol as fuel heads for the mainstream in shipping

A growing order book for methanol-fuelled ships shows that the shipping industry sees methanol as a promising alternative fuel. Relying on decades of expertise in the field, DNV explains important criteria to consider.

Methanol has attracted considerable attention as an alternative ship fuel since 2021. The adoption of the IMO interim guidelines for ships using methyl or ethyl alcohol as fuel (MSC.1/Circ.1621) has been an enabler for shipowners ordering methanol-fuelled ships. Together with the IMO’s IGF Code for ships using low-flashpoint fuels and DNV’s mandatory class rules for methanol-powered ships, specifically the LFL FUELLED and Methanol Ready class notations, a comprehensive regulatory framework for the use of methanol as ship fuel is now available to DNV customers.

Unique expertise to support the uptake of methanol

Lindanger, the world’s first dual-fuel methanol-fuelled tanker, was built in 2016 to DNV class. Today, with 18 of the current global methanol tanker fleet of 24 vessels in the DNV class, DNV is in a unique position to support the uptake of methanol technology by the shipping industry. “Our certification is considered the gold standard by flag administrations, especially around the North Sea,” says Øyvind Skåra, Principal Engineer in Safety & Systems at DNV Korea. “Apart from methanol-fuelled ships, our expertise extends to bunker vessels and methanol production.” Working hand in hand, various DNV business areas provide a full range of non-class-related advisory services covering the entire methanol value chain. 

Demonstrating what can be achieved

Proman, the world’s second-largest producer of methanol, and the shipping company Stena Bulk formed their joint venture Proman Stena Bulk to benefit from synergies between their companies in building up a fleet of modern, sustainable MR chemical tankers. “Together with Stena, a pioneer in methanol-fuelled ship operation, we are in a great position to demonstrate to the market what can be achieved with methanol propulsion,” says Peter Schild, Managing Director Sustainability at Proman. The joint venture’s current newbuild programme comprises six state-of-the-art dual-fuel MR tankers, all built to DNV class with three owned by the joint venture and three owned by Proman. Four of the vessels have been delivered already. “Through multiple optimizations, these vessels have achieved a world-leading EEDI for this ship type, which is seven per cent better than any other existing MR newbuild,” says Jacob Norrby, Head of Newbuilds and Projects at Stena Teknik. 

“The reason Proman and Stena Bulk decided to go for methanol-fuelled ships is to be prepared for the transformation we have to undergo on the way to net zero,” says Erik Hånell, CEO of Stena Bulk. “We know that we will be able to use this investment through to 2050 and beyond.” The plan is to blend in increasing amounts of blue and, eventually, green methanol to remain compliant with the IMO trajectory towards zero carbon. 

Simpler design requirements – lower CAPEX

A new chapter of the DNV document “Alternative Fuels for Containerships” discusses the properties and requirements not only of methanol in detail, and most of its insights on methanol as a fuel can be applied to other ship types as well. “We are currently seeing strong interest in both LNG and methanol and it seems that both fuels will play a role in the future,” says Christos Chryssakis, Business Development Manager at DNV. “Methanol is neither better nor worse than LNG, but its properties are quite different, making it attractive for certain ship types.”  

The capital investment for a methanol-fuelled newbuild or retrofit is lower because there is no need for pressurization or costly cryogenic fuel tanks and systems. “The whole design is simpler, which makes building the ship easier and less expensive, and fuel handling is also less challenging,” says Chryssakis. Methanol fuel tanks take roughly 2.5 more space than oil tanks, while cofferdams are required in some cases for protection. Methanol is also a toxic and flammable low-flashpoint fuel that does require specific safety precautions, which are, however, significantly simpler than those for LNG.  

Safety and environmental considerations for methanol

“Methanol is neither a ‘climate’ gas nor an environmental hazard. It mixes well with water and becomes harmless quickly because it is biodegradable,” explains Skåra. “But because of the toxicity of the vapours escaping during bunkering, gas hazard zones must be designated on board – a point to consider on passenger ships.” Methanol vapours are heavier than air so they sink to lower-lying areas, he adds.  

Methanol combustion requires adding about five per cent of MGO as a pilot fuel. On certain engine types, water can be injected into the combustion chamber to lower the NOx emissions. When retrofitting a methanol fuel system, existing fuel tanks or even ballast water tanks may be used for methanol after applying a specific internal coating, provided the required access points are available. 

Methanol engine technology is proven and not especially complex, Skåra points out. “We know how to handle and use methanol as fuel, so it’s just about developing engines for various ship types.” The leading engine manufacturers plan to have more methanol-ready engines and retrofitting kits available soon, he adds.  

Emission regulations not harmonized globally

“One of the biggest challenges is that fossil methanol actually increases the total life cycle of GHG emissions by approximately 10 per cent compared to MGO, while LNG reduces these emissions by 10 to 20 per cent depending on engine technology,” Chryssakis points out. “The current IMO regulations only account for the tank-to-propeller emissions, giving fossil methanol some carbon credit and a grace period until the mid-2030s before a switch to green methanol will be necessary. This may change in future, however; for example, the European FuelEU Maritime initiative, which takes effect in 2025, will penalize the well-to-wake emissions of fossil fuels.” 

A growing order book of newbuilds and retrofits

The order book for methanol-fuelled ships keeps growing, including for containerships, bulk carriers, tankers and even cruise and passenger vessels, with the first deliveries expected in 2024. “The demand is very high – owners want to be ready for this fuel,” says Skåra. “Orders for conversions of existing engines are likewise on the rise.”  

Smaller cargo and offshore vessels which don’t have much space on board stand to benefit especially from the relative simplicity of methanol technology, says Chryssakis. For example, Van Oord has ordered a new methanol-fuelled wind farm installation vessel which will also feature advanced emission-control technology.

Bunkering infrastructure

There are currently 122 ports with methanol storage facilities worldwide, and various ports – such as Gothenburg – have issued methanol bunkering rules or are preparing to do so. “In Norway, where we have a lively methanol industry, ships can bunker methanol from tank trucks,” says Skåra. “The long-term solution will probably be bunker vessels because of their simplicity and flexibility.” Proman Stena Bulk have successfully carried out ship-to-ship, berth-to-ship and truck-to-ship methanol bunkering operations, says Proman’s Peter Schild. 

Meanwhile, a new vision has emerged in the shipping industry: establishing “green shipping corridors” between specific ports where zero-emission fuels and technologies can be piloted. “We are actively involved in the discussions around establishing such collaborative platforms,” says Schild. “The key to realizing this concept is a clear regulatory framework, which has yet to be established.” 

Green methanol: production ramp-up is needed

“Green methanol is not available in significant quantities today,” says Chryssakis. “Many companies are willing to invest in production but want to see the demand first.” Fortunately, he points out, there is enough time to build up the production infrastructure. “I am sure that limited volumes will be offered before long, but establishing the required production capacity will take time.” Proman is currently co-building a production facility for green methanol in Canada, and similar plans exist for Finland. “Building up a global methanol bunkering infrastructure is not a major challenge,” says Schild. “Blue or green methanol can be blended in eventually, provided we have international fuel specifications.”  

Certification ensures credibility

In addition to offering fuel-related decision support for shipowners, DNV services cover the methanol value chain from production to delivery. “European regulations require specific certification for fuel to be considered as “green” and count towards the ETS and eventually, FuelEU Maritime,” explains Chryssakis. “The shipowners themselves also want reassurance that the fuel they buy is truly green.” 

Therefore prospective producers of green methanol are asking DNV to certify their production to demonstrate their credibility. “Our Business Assurance services can certify green fuel production, from plant construction to the production processes, while our Energy Systems services offer support with the qualification and assurance of new technology as well as expert advice on risks, safety and operational performance for the production and storage infrastructure. Our ability to certify green methanol producers today is something we are quite proud of,” says Chryssakis. 

DNV Approvals in Principle (AiP) also play a key role in paving the way for alternative fuels, also methanol, stresses Skåra. “Both owners and shipyards very much appreciate being able to buy complete, certified systems from a trusted vendor who has an AiP from DNV so they can install them onboard with confidence.” 

“Later this year DNV’s FuelBoss platform for digitalizing bunker operations will also support methanol bunkering. FuelBoss is already a market leader for LNG, and hydrogen bunkering has been successfully piloted. Beyond the direct efficiency savings achieved while bunkering, FuelBoss will help methanol and other green fuels accelerate quicker by providing market transparency on availability and operational matters,” Chryssakis adds.

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