Get real about synthetic fuels

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 27 April 2020


My commentary last week about the potential difficulties surrounding ammonia’s use as fuel attracted the attention of someone who knows about this sort of thing: Dr Reetta Kaila, technology and development manager for renewable gases at Wärtsilä Biogas Solutions.

She is no stranger to ShipInsight readers, as she contributed an article to our annual journal in which she looked at a number of candidate future fuels under the headline ‘What fuel will guarantee sustainable profitability?’ She did not offer a definitive answer – and nor has anyone else – but Wärtsilä is not sitting back and waiting to see what happens.


Jaakko Eskola, Wärtsilä’s president and CEO, confirmed this last week when he discussed the group’s reduced sales in Q1 because of the coronavirus. Despite its financial difficulties, the group remains committed to investing in R&D projects, including “advances we have recently made in testing the use of ammonia in our engines and fuel systems.” Research such as this is “critical to our long-term success,” he said.

Dr Kaila reminded me that the company is involved in a project with Eidesvik Offshore and others that will lead to an ammonia fuel cell propulsion arrangement on the supply vessel Viking Energy in 2024. Trials are under way and Wärtsilä is responsible for its ammonia fuel supply system.

As for its engines, “we can already today say that our engines could run on ammonia,” she assured me, but the key word in that statement is ‘could’; achieving that goal still depends on a number of significant factors.

I had set out some of ammonia’s challenges in my piece last week and Dr Kaila does not shy away from those. In her article for the ShipInsight Journal, for example, she doubted that ammonia “will limit the [global] temperature rise, at least any time soon, because of low readiness levels, its toxicity and rules and regulations still not being in place.”

Ammonia is also corrosive to many materials, including copper, zinc and aluminium. I was talking to an enginebuilder last week who told me of a land-based diesel engine in Bangladesh that happened to be located near an industrial plant that sometimes emitted ammonia into the air. That air was ingested into the engine and caused serious damage to its turbocharger’s aluminium components, he told me. As a result, he is concerned about the potential damage that ammonia slip might cause to a marine engine’s exhaust system.

What ammonia has on its side, of course, is that it is carbon-free. Well, it is at the point of use. I have previously commented on the confusion felt by some about IMO’s GHG strategy: is it based on well-to-wake emissions or tank-to-wake? I had hoped some clarity might have emerged from the seventh meeting of IMO’s Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships last month, but that is one of many IMO meetings that has been postponed because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Like me, Dr Kaila seems firmly on the well-to-wake side of the fence, telling me that ammonia “is only CO2 free when it is produced from non-fossil sources,” ie, using renewable electricity. That process is generically termed ‘power-to-X’, or PtX, with ‘X’ standing for any of the synthetic fuels that can be produced using electricity, such as methane or green methanol – both derived from hydrogen. “The main question that remains is which of these PtX-fuels is the easiest to implement when it comes to fuel infrastructure, handling [and] fuel consumption,” she went on.

My enginebuilder contact made a similar point, telling me that synthetic fuels are the only practical alternative to fossil fuels and his company’s R&D is focused sharply on how to make its engines “eat many more different fuels.” To make those available, though, “the world must create a lot of low-cost electricity and use a considerable amount of it to produce fuels.”

That is a big step and it is too early to know where this journey will take us. “We don’t know what the end game is and I tell colleagues that it’s getting more complicated because there won’t be one answer,” the enginebuilder told me last week.

His comment mirrors Dr Kaila’s, yet “there is no time to wait, as we need to act now,” she told me. But if we take that advice, what are the options? Diesel, LNG and methanol, she listed, “of which LNG has the highest potential to decarbonise shipping through bio LNG and synthetic LNG, when both are in place.”

A study published last month suggested that liquefied bio methane and liquefied synthetic methane could become available in sufficient quantities to help decarbonise shipping, but that assumes we can count well-to-wake emissions in the definition of ‘decarbonisation’.

It is time to get real about synthetic fuels. Whichever option rises to the top, I wonder whether the global community is ready to accept the huge amount of infrastructure that will be needed to generate electricity on the scale needed to decarbonise not just shipping, but our complete way of life in this way. If opposition is to be countered in years to come, this point needs to be given a place in the environmental debate now.

• If you had to choose a carbon-free fuel now, what would it be? Is that what you think is the ideal carbon-free fuel for the long term? Email me now with your views.

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