Methanol – Fuel for thought in our deep-dive Q&A

5 min read

19 Oct 2021

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Charlie Bass

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Wärtsilä

5 min read

19 Oct 2021

Text:

Charlie Bass

Photo:

Wärtsilä

A common sight in industrial applications for over 100 years, methanol – a biodegradable alcohol – shows great promise as a future fuel for maritime applications. We took a deep dive into its benefits and challenges in a Q&A with four of Wärtsilä’s leading experts on the topic.

 

As potential future maritime fuels go, methanol ticks a lot of the right boxes for vessel owners and operators. It slashes NOx, SOx and particulate emissions; it’s easy to store and handle onboard; and there are already established storage and handling facilities at or nearby most major ports.

When weighing up future-fuel options, it is becoming increasingly necessary to take a well-to-wake approach to calculating GHG emissions. The European Commission recently adopted the ambitious Fit for 55 Package, a set of proposals aimed at making the EU’s climate, energy, land use, transport and taxation policies fit for reducing net emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. This package places even greater demands on the maritime industry, which is expected to reduce its emissions by 75% by 2050 compared to 2020 levels.

A rainbow of options

As with other future fuels, like ammonia, colours are used to denote the sustainability of the different production routes for methanol. One of the biggest challenges from the perspective of maritime decarbonisation is that most methanol today is produced using natural gas (grey methanol) or coal (brown methanol). 

Conventional plants that produce methanol from the steam reformation of natural gas can reduce their carbon footprint by recirculating natural gas within the facility, sourcing additional CO2 from a neighbouring industrial facility or using renewable electricity or green hydrogen in place of process natural gas. These approaches are used to produce low-carbon methanol, which is known as blue methanol.

Methanol can also be produced from other carbon-containing feedstocks like biomass, biogas, waste streams and captured CO2. 

“When methanol is produced using renewable sources like biomass, and if the power used to produce it comes from renewable energy, it is considered to be green methanol. 

 

Q: What are the pros and cons of adopting methanol as a future marine fuel? 

Toni Stojcevski, General Manager, Sales, Project Services at Wärtsilä:

“Not only does methanol possess ideal physical and chemical properties for combustion engines, but it’s also one of the best options to meet current and future emissions targets. It’s a known quantity in terms of industrial applications and presents a low risk to the environment because it biodegrades rapidly in water. Because methanol is liquid at atmospheric pressure, it can be stored in somewhat similar tanks as traditional diesel onboard a vessel.”

Jussi Mäkitalo, Manager, Business Development at Wärtsilä: 

“Converting a vessel to methanol requires approximately double the volume of fuel tank capacity compared to diesel in order to maintain the same level of fuel endurance. Also, methanol tanks require additional cofferdams to prevent any potential leaks into machinery spaces. While finding space for the fuel tanks and fuel handling equipment can be a challenge in conversion projects, Wärtsilä can help to identify the optimal solution as part of a pre-conversion feasibility study.

For conversions, the vessel’s EEXI (Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index) value and CII (Carbon Intensity Indicator) rating is expected to be improved by around 10% when switching from HFO to methanol, if all consumers are converted. However, correction factors are being considered by the IMO that would take into consideration the well-to-wake perspective of the emissions. If adopted these will have some additional impact on the attained EEXI and CII values, depending on whether the vessel is operated with grey, blue or green methanol.”

  

Q: What about current and future developments in the supply, demand and pricing outlook for methanol?

Greg Dolan, CEO, The Methanol Institute

“Methanol has traditionally been produced and consumed as a chemical feedstock and is relatively new as a marine fuel. We expect production to increase as demand from the shipping industry grows, and a growing proportion of the new supply will be renewable methanol. Since the methanol molecule – CH3OH – is the same whether it is produced from grey, blue or green feedstocks, blending methanol is a viable option to facilitate the transition from conventional to renewable marine fuels.

Analysis conducted by Infiniti Research on behalf of the Methanol Institute has found that methanol is available as a marine fuel at 122 ports around the world. 

“Thanks to methanol’s chemical properties, bunkering requires only minor adaptations to infrastructure, and no cryogenic storage is needed to convert from conventional marine fuel. 

Waterfront Shipping has stated that using methanol as a fuel resulted in a comparative price per tonne that closely tracked marine gas oil, so for the majority of conventional methanol available today the costs represent a premium that shipowners should find reasonable.

The recent addition of methanol to the Powerzeek Energy Platform was made in response to increased enquiries from shipowners. Powerzeek is an online marketplace that makes it easier for shipowners and trucking companies to find and buy cleaner fuels at the best available price. Both S&P Global Plats and Argus Media are posting methanol marine fuel pricing for the Port of Rotterdam, creating critical pricing benchmarks.”

 

Q: At what stage is the technology development for using methanol fuel for newbuild vessels?

Paolo Lonzar, General Manager, Product Portfolio, Wärtsilä:

“Wärtsilä is developing a wide range of engine and fuel supply systems to help ship owners navigate the route to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and we are one of the few marine engine builders to have experience with methanol-fueled engines.

“We have the technology available and running in the field and will further develop it in accordance with customer requirements. Our target is to have a commercially viable 4-5 MW product for newbuilds ready for the market in 2023.”

 

Q: What about methanol conversions for existing vessels? How easy is the conversion process, and what needs to be taken into account?

Jussi Mäkitalo, Business Development Manager, Wärtsilä:

“A methanol conversion is one way to improve a vessel’s EEXI value and CII rating as well as to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions if using sustainably produced methanol.

“As a first step, vessel owners who are considering a conversion should ensure that they have a clear picture of the methanol availability in their operating area and an understanding of what conversion will mean for their vessel from a business point of view. 

“The second step is to carry out a technical feasibility study where we consider the practicalities of converting the vessel. These include which engines would be converted, where to locate the main equipment, how to arrange the fuel storage and piping onboard, and what safety systems are needed and how these will be controlled. Some of the conversion work can be carried out during regular operation of the vessel, but the feasibility of this should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“It is possible to use any of a vessel’s existing tanks to store the methanol, including void spaces, diesel tanks, ballast tanks, freshwater tanks or other tanks; however, the feasibility of this needs to be checked case by case. On board the Stena Germanica – which was converted to run on methanol in a co-development project between Wärtsilä, Stena Line, the Port of Gothenburg and the Port of Kiel – one of the existing ballast water tanks was converted to store methanol. This tank provided sufficient capacity for the vessel to run on methanol for four round trips, or eight days of operation, while the existing diesel tanks remained untouched, providing fuel redundancy for the vessel.

“From the perspective of onboard safety, there are well-established rules and regulations pertaining to the use of methanol as a marine fuel in the form of MSC.1-Circ.1621 – Interim Guidelines For The Safety Of Ships Using MethylEthyl Alcohol As Fuel. Additionally, at Wärtsilä we have developed a safety concept for methanol engines that acts as a design guideline for all marine projects that involve using methanol as a fuel.”

Jussi Heikkola, Director, Product Management and Technical Information, Wärtsilä:

“We are currently working on our methanol conversion offering and are looking for pilot customers operating with the Wärtsilä 32, Wärtsilä 46 and Wärtsilä 46F engines. We already have an established conversion solution for our ZA40S engines. At the current rate of development we believe we are on track to convert the first engines during 2023.” 

 

Q: How does Wärtsilä see methanol’s role developing in the future?

Toni Stojcevski:
“We see our role as that of an enabler, a facilitator who can aid the customer in choosing the optimal suite of options to support their specific decarbonisation strategy. 

“The regulatory pressures are only going one way, and that is up. Measures like the EU Fit for 55 Package, which aim to achieve a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, will have a significant impact on the maritime industry. The package, which is well aligned with Wärtsilä’s decarbonisation strategy, is asking the industry to pick up the change of pace and look beyond tailpipe emissions to take the entire fuel supply chain into account. This is clearly evident in the FuelEU Maritime proposal, part of the Fit for 55 Package, which sets limits for maritime fuels’ GHG intensity and levies fines for non-compliance. 

“There’s no doubt that methanol has a fantastic potential as a maritime fuel, and going forward the industry needs a stable, economically viable supply. Today there are more than 30 production sites being planned with a combined capacity of three megatons of methanol that will be produced sustainably using renewable power and from renewable feedstocks.” 



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