In the voyage to net


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Dec 17, 2023

In the voyage to net

May 15 - There’s a Yorkshire saying: “Where there’s muck there’s brass”. For

May 15 - There's a Yorkshire saying: "Where there's muck there's brass". For brass read money. Now we can also add shipping fuel. Companies are using agriculture and forest waste, the organic portion of municipal solid waste and even exploring using cattle manure to make green methanol. It's one of the fuels that leading players in the shipping industry hope will help slash their emissions.

There's urgency now since ships ordered today will likely to be still ploughing the seas in 2050, and net-zero value chains are dependent on the fuels that allow raw materials and finished goods to move across the globe.

From 2024, shipping is being brought into the EU's emissions trading system. Large vessels travelling between and into EU ports will have to pay for their emissions. The 175 member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which oversees the global industry, are under pressure to bring their climate strategy (which mandates only a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050) into line with the science, and to agree a carbon price that will make fossil fuels a less compelling option.

Methanol, ammonia and hydrogen are all being tested. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that ammonia will provide 45% of shipping fuel demand by 2050. Australian mining group Fortescue is working on converting engines to run on ammonia, while marine technology group Wartsila is part of an EU consortium aiming to demonstrate the technology in the lab this year.

But Danish shipping group Maersk is backing methanol, with 19 dual fuel ships on order, the first being delivered this year. Others, like China's COSCO and France's CMA CGN, have followed suit. Maersk wants at least 25% of its ocean-going cargo to be transported with green fuel by 2030, requiring some six million tonnes a year of green methanol. It's now signing partnerships with a range of producers in the Americas and China, to begin deliveries from 2025, and has set stringent requirements for fuel feedstocks.

Tim Cornelius is managing director for corporate development at Proman, a Swiss-based methanol producer and transporter. "Methanol makes more sense as a propulsion fuel. But ammonia is going to be an extremely good global carrier of hydrogen," he suggests.

Proman's first bio-methanol plant in Texas, expected to be online in 2025, will use municipal solid waste and agriculture residues, potentially including animal manure. "So long as the gasification process is tuned correctly, it's quite good to have multiple forms of feedstock, given (that) the supply changes seasonally, with different harvests."

California-based WasteFuel is another company that will supply Maersk. WasteFuel's co-founder, Trevor Neilson, points out that the industry has used methanol for over 50 years, which means the systems to store and transport the fuel are highly sophisticated and well-established.

Around two billion tonnes of municipal solid waste are produced each year. And that's expected to grow to 3.5 billion tonnes by 2050. WasteFuel's feedstock is the organic portion of municipal solid waste (like food residues, green waste and paper), which would otherwise emit methane in landfills.

The organic component can exceed 50% of landfill in developing countries, where methane is rarely captured. One study based on satellite monitoring estimated methane release from a landfill in Buenos Aires at 16.6 tonnes every hour.

WasteFuel has announced partnerships with municipal waste companies in the Philippines, the Middle East and South America. It uses anaerobic digestion to turn organic waste into a gas, which is then converted into methanol. As well as developing biorefineries, WasteFuel has developed a modular reactor, which will be capable of producing 100 tonnes of methanol a day to enable rapid scale up.

One of the most challenging aspects is separating out the organic portion from newly arriving municipal waste streams. And that's key to establishing the lifecycle reductions in greenhouse gas emissions the industry needs.

WasteFuel claims a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the fuel's lifecycle, "well-to-wake" in shipping industry parlance, and avoided methane emissions are a big component of the arithmetic.

Burning green methanol still produces carbon dioxide, but pollutants sulphur dioxide and particulates are eliminated and nitrous oxide, N20, another greenhouse gas, is cut by around 80%.

Where methane can be captured from existing landfill, it can be converted to energy to process the biorefinery.

Green methanol can also be made by combining captured carbon dioxide with green hydrogen, produced by electrolysis (powered by renewables), so-called e-methanol.

Swedish e-fuel developer Liquid Wind expects to begin production at its first plant in 2024. It will be co-located with a biomass combined heat and power plant, which sources waste from a nearby pulp mill. Calculating the carbon captured from biomass is critical. "It's one that we track and trace very carefully," says founder Claes Fredriksson.

The carbon captured from the power plant almost entirely offsets the emissions from methanol production, transport and combustion. Using wind energy to power the methanol production process delivers a 94% reduction in well-to-wake emissions.

Liquid Wind has already applied for permitting for a second plant, sized to produce more than double the first, delivering 130,000 tonnes of e-methanol a year.

A recent report for the International Chamber of Shipping estimates the shipping industry will need as much renewable energy as is currently produced globally – up to 3,000 terrawatt hours (TWh), to reach its net-zero goals. Liquid Wind's energy requirements include 470 gigawatt hours (GWh) of renewable electricity for the electrolysers alone. Its location in a country powered largely by renewables makes this feasible: it equates to just 0.3% of the renewable energy consumed in Sweden in 2021.

Green methanol would be a more perfect fuel if the combustion emissions could be captured. Indeed, capturing fossil emissions from today's bunker fuel would also provide a stopgap until enough green fuel, and the vessels to run on it, become available.

UK-based startup Seabound has tested a prototype on dry land and expects to be running trials at sea this summer. In its system, the ship's exhaust is directed through a container of calcium oxide pebbles, which bind carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate (the building block for cement).

Separation of the CO2 would be done on dry land, where it could be processed into fuel or sequestered. If successful, ships could be unloading their emissions along with their cargo.

Ammonia, too, is shipped around the world, and while it does not produce CO2 emissions it does produce nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are pollutants as well as sources of indirect greenhouse gases. It's also toxic and corrosive. Regulators are working to establish requirements while infrastructure is being developed and work goes on to tackle the NOx emissions. Companies like fertiliser manufacturer Yara are scaling up clean ammonia production.

But engines that can run on ammonia aren't yet commercially available; nor is the fuel cell technology that could provide an alternative, although a European fuel cell project aims to change that.

U.S.-based Amogy wants to bridge the gap, using hydrogen fuel cell technology. The system it's working on cracks ammonia back to hydrogen, which generates electricity in a fuel cell. The upside is no greenhouse gas emissions during sailing.

"What we are really solving is the problem of the hydrogen storage and transportation, because now essentially, we are using ammonia as a hydrogen carrier," explains co-founder Seonghoon Woo.

Transporting hydrogen is expensive because it must be converted to a liquid, requiring temperatures of -253 degrees Celsius. The world's first hydrogen tanker carried its first cargo last year: of hydrogen produced from coal.

"Commercial shipping produces the largest amount of greenhouse gases – that is the target market for us," says Woo. "And that is the target area where we can massively decarbonise using our ammonia-to-power solution, where ammonia safety and ammonia familiarity is already existing."

Amogy has demonstrated the technology in a drone, a tractor and a semi-truck. Its next target is a 1 megawatt (MW) system on a tugboat and barge this year. That could provide a route to the decarbonisation of the inland shipping sector, which in the U.S. contributes around 6 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

Woo is optimistic that the rapid pace of scale-up his company has so far achieved can be maintained to reach the 20 MWs that would be needed to power a container ship. He estimates that efficiencies of Amogy's system will be similar to that of an ammonia- powered engine.

Whilst the net-zero commitments of the companies that trade goods across the oceans are contingent on the shipping sector slashing its emissions, the new green fuels cost a lot more than their fossil equivalents.

Neilson of WasteFuel says the IMO should drop its resistance to a carbon price. "Nobody wants to step forward and just admit the truth, which is that there is a terrifying social and environmental cost of carbon that has to be factored into the equation," he argues. "These externalities are real, and society is paying the price... eventually this will happen. But the thing is, the longer we wait, the higher the price will be."

Angeli Mehta is a science writer with a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. Previously, she produced programmes for BBC Current Affairs and has a research PHD. @AngeliMehta

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