Testing the waters

The shipping industry is waking up to the problems associated with fossil fuels. Katie Burton investigates the alternatives being proposed.

We are all dependent on ships: they carry more than 80% of everything we buy and consume. But shipping is responsible for nearly 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions – higher than the whole of the UK, Canada or Brazil. According to the European Parliament, that could increase to 17% of global emissions by 2050.

Until recently, shipping was largely unregulated from an environmental perspective – it was not included in the Paris climate agreement – leaving operators without incentives to reduce emissions. Now, two global targets are prompting change. First, a cap on the amount of sulphur permitted in fuel, due to come into force in 2020, has seen a move away from the heavy fuel oil (a dirty by-product of oil refining) that is traditionally used. Second, in April of this year, 170 members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) agreed to a deal that requires the shipping industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050.

The deal was hard fought. It was widely reported that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Panama resisted the target, while other countries and environmental organisations pushed for it to be higher. “The 50% target is not enough,” says Faig Abbasov, a shipping officer at European campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E). “That’s the bare minimum that we can do. We asked for a 100% reduction.” Nevertheless, the target is now in place. The question remains whether it can, and will, be met. 

Cleaning up

"A 2017 study found that hydrogen fuel cells could satisfy fuel demand for nearly all maritime vessels”

As the vast majority of ships rely on fossil fuels, the only way to reduce emissions is to cut the amount of fuel used or replace it altogether. One of the most promising zero-emission replacements, according to experts in the field, is hydrogen. When hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, a chemical reaction produces water and energy – without producing CO2. A 2017 study by Sandia National Laboratories found that hydrogen fuel cells could satisfy fuel demand for nearly all maritime vessels.

Some companies are already experimenting with and utilising hydrogen, though this is still in the early stages. In 2017, Belgium company CMB launched The Hydroville, a small passenger ferry that uses hydrogen to power a diesel engine. Many researchers and environmentalists believe this is only the start. “We think that, at the global level, 80% of shipping will likely go with hydrogen, or another form of hydrogen-carrier, such as ammonia,” says Abbasov. 

Dr Tristan Smith, a reader in energy and shipping at University College London, agrees, though he admits to witnessing scepticism within the industry: “Hydrogen or ammonia are looking like the ways we’re going to achieve this – it’s entirely viable. Whenever anyone in the industry says to me, ‘it’s impossible, couldn’t imagine ever operating on anything other than oil,’ it’s just absurd given the evidence that we already have.”

So far, so good, but even the most strident hydrogen devotees accept that there is a major drawback. Along with various technical issues (hydrogen storage takes up a lot more room than traditional fuel), hydrogen is phenomenally expensive – more than seven times the price of distillate fuels. The reason for its high price is that it doesn’t exist as a gas on Earth in large quantities. As Dr John Broderick, a researcher at Manchester University explains, it is either produced from natural gas or through electrolysis of water. If it’s to be made cleanly (which is the whole point) it also requires expensive carbon capture technology. 

As Abbasov puts it: “Operating hydrogen ships with the current hydrogen price is immense. Without having some incentive, or at least disincentive to use the diesel ships, there’s no way that shipowners would choose hydrogen. Nobody sane would choose hydrogen.”

It may be the future, but there evidentially won’t be a mass move to zero-emission fuels any time soon. What’s more, without decarbonisation of the energy supply used to produce hydrogen, the benefits won’t be fully realised. “It matters how fuels are produced, not just what fuels you burn 
in the ships,” says Broderick.

Unfortunately, the alternative fuel widely touted as the next step for cleaner ships is liquified natural gas (LNG) – regarded by almost all environmentalists as being far from the answer. Though using LNG reduces air pollution due to its lack of sulphur, its record for CO2 emissions is weak. “It is fundamentally a high-carbon fossil fuel,” says Broderick. 


Wind power

While a closer look at oil-alternatives might fuel nothing more than despondency, at least in the short term, it doesn’t mean the 50% target is unachievable. Back in 2009, the IMO concluded that CO2 emissions could be reduced by up to 75% through the application of operational measures and existing technologies. Among many other methods, this includes improving design standards for ships, optimising routes and implementing slow-steaming – literally moving ships slower. 

Then there’s the power of wind. Though no container ship is going to forego its engine entirely, auxiliary sails are having a comeback. Finnish company Norsepower, a specialist in flettner rotors (spinning cylinders that harness wind power to propel a ship) is one of the main players. The company has fitted out three ships so far, but Jukka Kuuskoski, senior vice president of sales and marketing, says this is only the start. “We can see that the market is activating rather quickly now that regulation and pressure to reduce fuel consumption is increasing,” he says. “There is a lot of demand and interest.” The level of fuel saving achieved by the sails depends on several factors, but Norsepower says the technology has the potential to create savings of up to 20%.

James Mason, a PhD researcher specialising in wind propulsion at Manchester University, has also noticed a renewed interest: “There’s a really positive vibe around wind propulsion at the minute,” he says. “A lot of designs were being made and tested a few years ago. Now some, especially the flettner rotor, are being picked up by the industry.” 

Mason is researching how the optimisation of routes and ship speed helps to increase the efficiency of sails. Simply put, he says, slowing a ship down increases the efficiency of the sail and optimises fuel savings. Like many other experts in the field, he is keen to demonstrate the importance of viewing methods in tandem. 


Incorporating batteries

Anyone with a passing interest in the future of road transport may well wonder whether batteries also have a part to play in shipping. The answer 
is yes and, once again, the Nordic countries are steaming ahead. 

Swedish company Scandlines has converted two of its large passenger ferries, Tycho Brahe and Aurora, to run on battery-electric power on the HH Ferry route between Helsingør, Denmark and Helsingborg, Sweden. Cables are connected to the ships every time they reach port, and the batteries are charged with the power of 70 electric cars. 

Batteries are only an option for short journeys, but they are an appealing alternative for some ferries. They can also be utilised as part of a hybrid method in which battery-electric power is deployed near ports, reserving the engines for the rest of the journey. This would have the dual benefit of reducing carbon emissions and the release of air pollutants near the shore. 


The future

The full gamut of options open to the shipping industry is impossible to summarise in so small a space. Suffice it to say that they are both promising and complicated. Most environmentalists won’t be surprised to hear that experts are calling for clearer and better-enforced regulation to drive the uptake of technological innovations such as hydrogen fuel. As long as oil is the cheapest option, it will remain king.

“You need to somehow close the gap,” says Smith, who is also co-chair of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition. “We need to do that with a carbon price, or just ban the use of fossil fuels. The question remains whether there is the political appetite or the industry appetite for something as complicated, but potentially cost-effective, as the carbon price.”

Abbasov agrees that regulation is both difficult and necessary. “Imagine the IMO – 174 countries coming together with so many differences in economic development and culture,” he says. “You can’t expect the IMO to put in place a level of carbon pricing that will be good enough to breach the price gap between hydrogen, ammonia or battery, and diesel. That will take a lot of time.” For now, T&E is pushing for regional regulations like those passed in Norway, as well as campaigning for slow-steaming at the international level. 

It’s not yet clear how quickly change will take place in the shipping industry. Apart from a handful of forward-looking companies, mostly based in Scandinavia, there’s a long way to go. The technology exists and the 2050 target certainly can be reached. Whether it will be reached is another matter. 


Katie Burton is a production editor and writer


Image credit | iStock
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