Decarbonisation – on the brink of a breakthrough?

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 16 December 2019


Almost nobody in shipping expects that fossil fuels will be out of fashion by 2030 especially since that would involve replacing the power systems of more than 80,000 vessels at a cost that would be so huge that many within the industry could never survive. More to the point there is no technology available now that could actually allow that to happen.

When anticipated trade growth is taken into account, shipping emissions as a whole – not for individual ships – could be higher than in 2008 and meeting the IMO’s target would require an efficiency improvement of around 90%. Modern engines are improving but only in small incremental steps and not at a pace to meet the IMO target.


The best that could be done is to use fuels with a higher hydrogen content than those in use presently. That too is not so easy since the world production of such fuels is nowhere near sufficient to meet the demands of an industry that for all of its problems us vital in keeping a vast majority of the world population fed, clothed, housed, employed and able to enjoy power supplied at the flick of a switch.

In mid-December the ICS presented shipping’s case at the COP25 talks in Madrid. As this is being written, those talks are still progressing so what the outcome from them might be is unknown. The gist of the ICS presentation was embracing the 4th Propulsion Revolution.

Announcing the presentation ICS Deputy Secretary-General, Simon Bennett said, “The transition to zero CO2 emitting fuels – which ICS has dubbed the ‘Fourth Propulsion Revolution’ – is the challenge of our age, and one that we know the industry will embrace. This will require truly massive investment in research and development, which ICS believes must be at the heart of the IMO GHG Strategy if the ambitious reduction targets that IMO Member States have set are to be met. Indeed, based on the total impact of the commitments so far made by governments as part of the Paris Agreement, successful delivery of the IMO targets will decarbonise shipping at a much faster rate than the rest of the world economy, whose emissions are projected to continue increasing for at least a further 10 years”.

Some shipping companies are ahead of the pack when it comes to trying out new ideas but that has always been the case. In such a competitive industry not all can afford to be guinea pigs. A number are trying out biofuels which are said to be carbon neutral although sceptics do not accept that if the energy used to sow, harvest and convert the plant material into usable liquid fuel is taken into account.

Wes Amelie, the feeder container ship converted by MAN to run on LNG, is to trial synthetic natural gas or SNG. This fuel is also said to be climate neutral because the energy used to produce it will come from wind turbines.

SAL Heavy Lift is trying out a quite different technology in six ships next year after piloting the Fuelsave FS MARINE+ fuel treatment. In that system an onboard electrolysis system splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gases and injects it along with diluted methanol into the engine. A CO2 reduction of between 8 and 15% is anticipated using the technology.

Such a saving would be considered as quite spectacular by many used to savings coming in a few percentage points here and there. However, there will be costs incurred in producing and installing the systems and of course, electrolysis itself will require some source of power which will have to be produced on board using conventional fuel.

At Marintec two new projects involving ammonia as a fuel emerged one for a 23,000teu boxship and the other for a feeder vessel. MAN Energy Solutions’ involvement in both projects is interesting as the Diesel engine specialist has already developed engines that are running on LNG, methanol. Propane and ethane and of course biofuels.

The new projects may be among the first ship designs to be considering ammonia as a fuel but it is not a new idea as far as internal combustion engines go. Caterpillar has been working on the idea for more than a decade and has patents on some aspects, whether these will prove an obstacle to others remains to be seen. An ammonia fuelled engine would be a good choice to decarbonise shipping as there is no CO2 produced from it during combustion. More to the point it would not require the expensive storage systems that a fuel like hydrogen would.

Just how quickly all of the problems around its use can be solved is another matter. There was no fanfare from Caterpillar when it patented its ideas in 2008 such as happened with fuel cells some years earlier but despite a few small-scale pilots and some more ambitious plans not much of obvious significance has happened over many years in either.

Electronic engine controls may make using ammonia easier than was the case in 2008, especially as much more experience has been gathered in working with different fuels. That may speed up the breakthrough of ammonia compared for example to LNG, but there is still the IMO and safety aspects to overcome.

We may be on the brink of a breakthrough but we are not there yet.

The Journal

Published every February the journal is now recognised as the highest quality publication that covers all aspects of maritime technology and regulation and a must read for the industry.

More Details