Methanol and hydrogen fuel call for GHG policy change

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 06 March 2020


I am returning to a discussion I started in January about the vexed question of whether IMO’s GHG goals should be based on tank-to-wake or well-to-wake emissions. It is timely because IMO’s 7th Intercessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships (WG-GHG 7) is set to review that point when it meets on 23-27 March.

I have argued that well-to-wake is the logical approach and I have received support for that view from Chris Chatterton, chief operating officer of the Methanol Institute, which is a global trade association for the methanol industry.

“It cannot be in the interests of shipowners or their customers to have the burden of carbon emissions reduction placed on the shipping industry alone,” he wrote. “The implications for safety and for cost of transportation are obvious; the unintended consequences on the supply chain and port infrastructure could be numerous too.”

Norled’s hydrogen-fuelled ferry will have a deck-mounted fuel cell (image: Norled)

He is right about where the burden would fall. If no account is taken of how fuel is produced, I cannot see how the world will benefit from the much-needed reductions in GHG emissions that this industry is doing its best to achieve.

He went on to make a comparison with the IMO 2020 sulphur cap, for which oil companies have made adjustments and investments to produce suitable grades of fuel. In the same way, he argued, “the energy industry should take a share of the burden in finding sustainable solutions that spread the investment risk and don’t slow down progress towards reducing the total carbon impact of shipping.”

The MI has a dog in this fight, of course: methanol is not a carbon-free fuel at the point of use. But its UK-based consultant Peter Hinchliffe told the ShipInsight conference last week that if it were produced from “one of numerous pathways”, such as from biomass or using renewable electricity and recycled CO2, “methanol has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 on a well-to-propeller basis.”

Mr Chatterton made a related point that I had not previously considered: its chemical formula is CH3OH, giving it “the highest hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of any liquid fuel”, he said. Ammonia (NH3) is often described as being an alternative way of delivering hydrogen and the same logic would apply to methanol, were it not for that pesky carbon atom.

Most methanol is currently produced from natural gas and the small amount that is made in a renewable way costs more to produce. That, Mr Chatterton says, is “due to the lack of a balanced policy, which should include not only targets, but also incentives.” If that could be fixed, then “adopting a lower-carbon supply chain for renewable methanol now would enable owners to begin the energy transition and ensure the ability to meet 2030 and 2050 targets, possibly much sooner than these deadlines,” he believes.

Methanol competes against potential carbon-free fuels. I have mentioned ammonia because of its hydrogen content, but hydrogen itself is the one that is frequently cited as a future fuel. For example. An EU-funded project is developing two vessels – one in France and one in Norway – that will operate on electricity from hydrogen fuel cells. The plan is that “both vessels will run on hydrogen produced from renewable energy,” the project’s briefing notes say, and if that is achieved, that will be a welcome achievement.

But most hydrogen is produced – like methanol – from LNG, so how practical is renewable hydrogen production? A ShipInsight reader drew my attention this week to an excellent article by Dr Dino Imhof, head of turbocharging solutions at ABB Turbocharging. It was posted on the company’s website on 28 January and I confess I did not see it at the time. If you have not read it before either, I urge you to do so now.

He describes the various electrolysis methods available to produce hydrogen and their respective efficiencies and concludes that the electricity supply would have to be almost 100% from renewable sources to have a net reduction effect for shipping.

The alternative is to produce hydrogen at dedicated production plants, he wrote, which will take time and significant upfront investment to build. “This means there’s a risk that hydrogen from electrolysis will not be available on time and with sufficient volume to have the required impact for the maritime industry’s 2050 ambitions,” he concludes.

He also looked at other ways of producing hydrogen, at the competition for its use from other sectors and at the growing energy demand from rising populations and he came to this conclusion: “The maritime industry will need huge investment if it’s to meet the IMO’s ambitious targets using hydrogen as a fuel source, with dedicated production facilities required to generate renewable energy for the large-scale production of hydrogen. … It won’t be cheap or easy.”

That is not the only problem hydrogen faces. A three-year EU-backed project, Implementation of ship hybridisation, has a very hydrogen-focused brief and has just completed its first year of work, involving 15 partners and 45 observer organisations from across Europe. No outputs from its work are yet available, according to the its EU parent body, but one of its researchers told me this week that “it is becoming clear that it is challenging to use hydrogen in maritime applications: the infrastructure is not yet there and storing hydrogen in a compact way is challenging.”

To be fair, I don’t think anyone involved in the project finds that surprising but I hope they have cracked those problems by the time the project ends in June 2022 or the EU might wonder what it has got for its €9,206,068.30 (don’t forget those 30 cents!) contribution to the project’s €15,984,446 (and 91 cents) budget.

These growing concerns about making, storing and delivering hydrogen lend weight to the arguments that IMO must accept a well-to-wake assessment in its GHG strategies. I hope that when WG-GHG 7 starts work later this month, it will wake up to that reality.

• Do you agree that IMO needs to adopt well-to-wake? And if you are involved in the EU’s ship hybridisation project, do you expect it to achieve all of its objectives? Email me now with your views.

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